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GREENVILLE, Tenn. — When Kojo Abakah was 12 years old, he received a shoebox.
This shoebox did not contain shoes but rather toys, a yoyo, clay, toffees, a pencil, a small notebook, and a Gospel tract.
Ten years later, Abakah puts together similar shoeboxes, which will be given to children like himself.
Abakah is a 22-year-old freshman student at Tusculum College from the country of Ghana in West Africa. The shoebox he received was a part of an outreach by the Samaritan’s Purse ministry that provides children across the world with filled shoeboxes as Christmas gifts.
The ministry, called Operation Christmas Child, is supported by many churches nationwide and community members locally. However, it is rare to have in East Tennessee a young man who received the shoebox gift as a child.
“It was a Friday, I remember,” Abakah said in an interview with The Greeneville Sun. “Afternoon, at school. We all came together ... and everyone there got a gift.”
It was the first time Abakah had ever received a toy. Christmas gifts — if there were gifts — usually were a pair of sandals or another article of clothing that was essential. This shoebox was his first true gift.
“Where I am from we do not expect these things,” he said.
Abakah does not remember much else about that day — he was too enthralled by his new treasures. He does remember the missionaries singing “Jesus Loves Me.”
“That song is a powerful song,” he said. “I can’t forget it.”
Abakah said that he was a Christian before the missionaries delivered the gifts and shared the Gospel message. However, he said his faith reached a deeper level that day.
“When I received the message, I said, ‘I am going to have to be strong in life,’” he recalled.
He is the youngest boy in a family with four sisters and three brothers. In addition to him, one sister received a shoebox.
He remembers sleeping within arm’s reach of the box for years until he finally disposed of it.
“‘If I knew then that I would be coming here, I would have kept it,” he said.
His real regret is that he did not keep in contact with the family that made his box. The family had left their contact information in the box, and, as a 12-year-old, Abakah responded to their letter.
However, life continues and Abakah did not think about the shoebox again until he recognized the Operation Christmas child logo on a video at Tusculum Baptist Church that advertised the yearly outreach.
Now, he was the one able to give. Abakah put together two shoeboxes and included his name and email address in hopes the children who receive the shoeboxes will respond.
“I hope (the shoeboxes) go to Ghana,” he said.
Abakah had to use money from a gift he had received to purchase the content of the shoeboxes because he owns little.
He says he is living by faith and he said it is faith that brought him to this private college in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains from his West African home.
“I always wanted to study in the U.S.,” he said. However, for a young man in Ghana, attending school in the United States is expensive and a difficult process.
His brother helped Abakah begin the journey. Abakah began to attend classes to prepare him for the SAT test, and started applying to numerous schools. His brother helped with expenses.
Abakah said he began to grow weary of the difficult process of applying to study internationally, and his faith grew thin.
He said he listened to others’ opinions and applied where they told him. He was not “listening to God.”
A change happened when he decided to open his heart and ears.
His answer: “Apply to a school you have never heard of.”
Tusculum. Abakah saw the name in a list of colleges.
“It still sounds foreign to me,” Abakah said, sitting in the school’s common area and being greeted by passing students as though he has always belonged.
He sees “the hand of God” in his admission to the school. He submitted the initial application but was unable to get proper documents in before the deadline.
However, an email from Delane Crutcher, associate director of admissions, informed Abakah he could still complete the application.
When Abakah tells his story, he weaves in characters from the Bible and draws comparison to his own life. His story entwines with the narrative of his faith.
Abakah recalled the Biblical story of David, who was king of what was the nation of Judah about 1,000 B.C. David danced with such passion while praising God that his wife scolded him for indecency.
“Daniel danced for God,” Abakah said.
For Abakah, praise comes through dance and song. He does not listen or sing anything other than praises.
“There is power in music,” Abakah said.
The night Abakah read his acceptance letter to Tusculum College, he sang praises to God so loudly his pastor in another house could hear.
Abakah was singing to God and did not care that it was two in the morning.
“It was a miracle!”
The rest of Abakah’s journey to East Tennessee was far from easy, but he made it.
“He (God) has brought me from the valley and placed me on the mountain. I always give Him Glory. My whole testimony is faith, faith, faith.”
Abakah is a pre-pharmacy major and hopes to continue to study medicine. He wants to gain experience in the U.S. and one day return to his country to build a hospital.
However, until that dream becomes a reality, Abakah must live each day on the same faith that has brought him halfway around the world.
The same young man that had never received a Christmas gift until the shoebox still has few worldly possessions.
He works in the college’s cafeteria, does work-study with the college’s band, and received a partial scholarship from the college. Still, it is not enough for his tuition payments.
Abakah is not worried. He said that God has brought him this far and he is sure that God will provide a way.
Members from Tusculum Baptist Church heard Abakah’s story and want to help the young man stay at Tusculum. They have set up a fund through the church to help pay his tuition. Anyone that is interested in donating may write a tax-deductible check to the church and denote it for Kojo Abakah.
“Even my dress is a faith dress,” Abakah said, looking down at the tradition garb he had bought before come to Tusculum.
And he’s right. The white tunic, paired with black pants, is trimmed with the perfect shade of Tusculum orange.