Cloudflare TV

The NGO That Wasn't

Presented by Val Vesa
Originally aired on 

Twelve years ago we asked our son not to tell anyone a family secret. It's now a known matter in over 25 countries, and has changed the lives of millions.


Transcript (Beta)

Hello and welcome again to today's live segment where I'm going to be talking about the NGO that wasn't.

My name is Val Vesa. I'm a community manager here at Cloudflare.

My background is a lot of web hosting, website security, social media, photography, and I also do volunteering together with my wife and now our two children.

And actually, the story I'm going to be sharing today is talking all about volunteering and what we did as a family 13, 12, 13 years ago, and it just sort of blew up in a now project.

Throughout the presentation today, if you have any questions or if you want to share any thoughts, maybe you've been in one of these projects, maybe you have any comments or suggestions, always welcome feedback.

Please email us at livestudio at And now for a short introduction, please pay attention to this video.

So why shoebox?

And why Romania, you may ask? I am coming to you live from Romania now from our home.

You can see some of our my kids homework and daily schedule in the background.

Back in 1989, Romania has gone through a very cruel revolution and communism fell.

Actually, it fell all over Eastern Europe, but for us, it was a bit harsher with a lot of death and a lot of killing.

But immediately after that, help started to pour into the country.

We've had a lot of the Western countries sending in medical supplies, necessities, clothing, and so on.

But a particular target of these gifts that were coming from abroad were children, were kids.

And these gifts were coming in shoeboxes, very nicely wrapped, multicolored, everything inside that you can imagine in terms of cleaning supplies, clothing, drawing, you know, pens, pencils, depending on what the age and gender of the child that was supposed to get the box, you would find different things inside.

And this was just an amazing thing that I witnessed as a child, I was one of those on the receiving end, so to say.

So when I got married with my wife, and we had our first child, our son, he was about maybe three and a half, four years old.

And we said, we wanted to teach him how to give.

We wanted to teach him that it is important that from everything that you own, be it a lot or not very much, you need to share with other children, other people around you who maybe don't even have as much as you have.

So as we were closing in on Christmas Day, I think it was maybe two weeks or so before, we spoke with him.

Well, as much as you can speak with a four year old, and we said, look, this is what we want to do.

So we just bought some stuff, put them into some plastic bags, you know, shopping bags, regular shopping bags, there were no shoeboxes back then, there was no project.

And we just went and tried to find some poor families with children and just gifted these to them.

Actually, we handed it to him so he could go and do it.

And what we told him then was, son, this is a secret project.

This is a family thing that we do. And we're not going to go around and brag about it.

Because when you do a good deed, you don't just go around and say, look what I did.

Nowadays, we have social media and some people do that.

But the good thing that you should recommend to your children or that I recommend to you if you want to help somebody, usually you don't go about bragging about it.

Of course, if he would have been a good child, you know, good child, and listen, we would not have this conversation today.

But he went back to kindergarten and he told all of his colleagues of what we did.

And then the parents came to us and said, we want to join your NGO.

That's why the title of today's segment is the NGO that wasn't an NGO because there's no NGO.

And we said, okay, let's just wait, there's no NGO, there's no project, we just wanted to teach them how to do that.

And the parents said, no, we want to do the same thing. Let's all gather together as a class.

There was about maybe 25 children in the group.

And the families gathered together and we did it back in 2006. And it was, it was just amazing, because we raised 512 shoeboxes.

Why shoeboxes again, because we remembered how we were helped after the revolution in Romania.

And then we said, why don't we just sort of import or do the same thing, but Romanians helping Romanians.

And then it all started. This is a much later map that we had with locations in Romania in 2012.

And then locations kept coming more and more and more to the time where the designer friend that we had there back then and helping us with the map.

He was like, I don't think this map can handle much more. And now you see here in text, I'm sorry for this being in Romanian, but I didn't have so much time to translate everything.

This says all over Romania and diaspora. Diaspora meaning, of course, all of the Romanians are outside of Romania, expats, whatever you want to call them, who heard about the project and started joining.

And this would be one of the places that we usually go to.

We have a collecting time that we do from 1st to 15th of December each year.

All of these volunteers gather in collection centers, and then people just drop off boxes there.

And then other volunteers are the same if they want to join from 16th to 24.

So Christmas Eve, just so everybody can go back to their families and be with their own children if they want to on the 25th.

So for two more weeks, we distribute all of these boxes. And this would be one of the sites that we found when we went to one of the children centers.

I will not be naming any cities, any locations, any names throughout this segment, just because we want to keep their privacy.

All of the photos you will see are approved to be presented here, either by the legal guardians or the parents, for those who had parents, and those that we couldn't show their faces, you're going to see a black screen on their face.

Children are always very curious.

They didn't really care so much about us being there, taking photos, asking them if they like.

The first thing that any child will do when they get their box is just open it and check out the toys, the sweets, and anything that they had inside.

Sometimes they would... This was something that really inspired me because they would actually switch.

So if one of them had two candies and the other one just had chocolate, they would go like, okay, I'm going to break my chocolate in two, and I'll give you one candy, and then you give me half of your chocolate.

And children are just awesome. This is just how one of the offices in one of the companies that was giving away locations was looking like.

I think this is about 3 a.m.

You can see a bottle of Coca-Cola there in the back, kind of empty because we really needed it.

After the collection happens, so after everybody comes in with their boxes in all of these locations, then each of the nights of the gathering time, let's say, so every night of those two weeks, we just go in there and we sort things.

All the boxes come untaped, so they're all open, just to make sure that we don't have anything that is dangerous in there, like, I don't know, candles, explosives, and so on.

Also, any perishable, like fruit, bananas, and things in jars that can break.

So we have to manually check each box and their content, just to make sure that they're safe.

And then this is a photo of my wife and some friends.

We load them in volunteers' cars, and we just drive to destinations that we gather throughout the year.

Imagine people are emailing us about cases that they find out.

Sometimes they live in buildings where they're a bit embarrassed to just go and ask somebody if they're poor or if they have issues in their families.

But when you see a child coming out of their house every day with the same shoes on and with the same clothes, and they visibly look like, you know, that's pretty much it, what they have, then in your mind, things start to happen.

And then many of these neighbors, they call us, and they say, look, I have a family on my block, on my street, and maybe you guys can help.

So that's how names get added to the list.

Also, we have a very good connection now with a lot of the NGOs, actual NGOs, not like us, and also TV stations and publications.

So if a journalist, a social journalist, would go and find a specific case, a specific issue somewhere in the country, or in the countries that we are now in, they would email us and say, maybe you guys can do something about this.

Again, children are just amazing.

This is another one of the, I think this is in a public library, you can see top right, you can see some of the books on the shelves.

People join in as volunteer locations.

And what they do is they literally tell us, I have a room, or I have a floor, or I have a location where you guys can organize collecting boxes.

Sometimes this could be a dentist location, sometimes can be a school, it can be a student dormitory, it can be companies, headquarters, some companies give us a floor, some companies give us just an office, they would have to shut down heating in the winter, because there's a lot of chocolates in the boxes, so we don't want them to melt, and so on.

So there's a lot of logistics that go on through this.

This is another shot that I really loved. And he was asleep when the volunteers came with the boxes.

So they just dropped the box next to him so that when he would wake up, he would have a nice surprise.

Again, children being very, very interested in the contents of the boxes that they just received.

Not really minding the camera or anybody around them.

Some of the locations that we travel to to give the boxes are not reachable by bikes or cars or trains.

So we have to have volunteers that actually are able to do some hiking and maybe even do some cliffhanging if necessary.

So this is one of the cases where the photo was taken by someone in a line of a few, I think, 17 or 20 of the volunteers actually walking on the mountain trails to go to this remote village where they would give the boxes to the children there so they would have a nice Christmas.

Some of the contents of the boxes that we liked a lot, we usually take photos and put them on our Facebook page so people can see examples of what they can put inside each of the box.

This, again, depends on the gender and the age of each child.

So most likely you'll not be putting any, I don't know, reading books on somebody that is maybe two or three years old can't even read yet.

Again, we label each box. We had some friends that print for us every year these red and blue tags and then we have, I'm going to translate for you, that's age limits there.

So it's like 2, 4, 5, 9, 12, 14, and then 15, 18 years old.

So depending on what content is in each of the box, we sort of mark one of that box, check, and then we just, you know, we know who to give it to.

These are the labels. And then when there's a lot of boxes coming in and we don't really have enough small cars and personal vehicles to transport them, then we have a lot of the shipping companies that actually reached out to us and said, hey, we see this project that you guys are doing and maybe you need some logistical support.

And then this is TNT coming in with saying, okay, you guys want to send, I think that was about 6,000 boxes that we wanted to send to Moldova, so outside of the country.

And they said, we're going to give you a truck and they will just transport everything for free.

So they took care of all the custom documentation and all that.

And it's just an amazing partnership sometimes that you just sort of get into it without knowing.

Children being very curious about the contents of the boxes again.

And this is also one of the examples that I was, I barely got the photo because the bus was driving away.

We have a lot of Romanians living outside Romania and most of them travel back home maybe once in a year, once every six months with buses.

So there's a lot of buses, most likely. I mean, anybody knows that there's a lot of buses traveling all over Europe.

And some of these companies reached out to us and said, we have a lot of people coming into the bus stations with a lot of boxes.

They don't want to travel. They just ask us if we can ship the boxes for them.

So what are you guys doing? What's your NGO? How can we help?

And then many of these buses actually are filled with boxes. We come from for shoebox project.

That's one boy who just got a brand new pair of sneakers and he wouldn't just wait to go in the house and change them.

He just changed them directly on the spot. That was really impressive.

And I selected this photo just because it speaks volumes of the immediate impact such a project or anything that you give actually can have in the life of someone else.

These are children looking at us unloading boxes. So we just pulled in with, I think we were like three cars and we just started getting boxes out of the trunks and they were looking out and they're just so, so happy to see us.

And this is just some company where we collected boxes from. So I think we were just getting ready to go out from their floor to the elevators and then go down to the basement in the parking lot where I would just load them in my car.

And this is a selfie of me in my car. And I don't recommend anyone doing this because I'm most likely, I think, I mean, I'm 99% sure this is illegal.

I could not see anything in the background.

My mirror was blocked and so on. So, but just so you can see how my December usually looks like.

This is a lot of friends, my wife in the background here, collecting all of the things from the boxes that are not necessarily fit to reach the specific age of the child on the label.

So we would not give them, like I said, lamps and candles and explosives. Explosives meaning even firecrackers.

We just wanted to play safe and not get into any of the problems.

These are lists that are coming in. As you can see on the left low, you can see high value.

So somebody sending me a message of, hey, I found this guy, I found this child, I found this family.

Can you guys help? So we collect all of these messages throughout the year and then we arrange them in the order of receiving them.

So just to make sure that it's fair, we don't pick, we just go by the order.

So if we got five messages today, about five cases, we most likely, the first order of arranging them will be the order we received.

It was really late here.

That's eighth floor in my formal workplace. And all the walls, like all those windows are black, just all floors are lit.

People were selecting and sorting boxes.

It was about 2 a.m. I think. Again, boxes being assigned to specific lists, making them ready for the morning when the volunteers would come with their cars to pick them up and take them to families and children.

Sorting going on all night long. Like I said, sometimes like here we called, we usually post messages on our Facebook page and say, hey, is anybody available?

Anybody that doesn't want to sleep tonight?

So anybody that wants to help, they can come in and sort with us. And then of course, once media got involved and television and radio stations got out to us, then it was even easier to, like you see me here, sorting and getting more requests from people who know of specific children being in need.

So we can be able to collect more boxes for them.

This is just how one of the companies that was sharing space for the boxes to be collected looks like around Christmas.

You can see the Christmas tree, which most likely a lot of the companies are doing throughout the world.

And then around it, you can see a lot of the boxes and then some children looking into their boxes.

Again, like I said, just going to go a little bit faster through these.

I'm not going to name names, but she is, if I can say the face of the project, she's the girl that usually is seen in all of our images.

And we discussed with her mother that she agrees for her to be, if we can say so, the face of the project.

She's much older now.

And even now she's agreeing with that. Again, lists being ready to be sent out the next day.

This is one note that we got from a boy whose name is Catalin.

He's eight years old. And what he says in here says, I hope that everything that I gifted in here for you, you will like.

I know it's not a lot, but that's as much as I could do.

I wish you happy holidays and a lot of health. Eight year old child who understands volunteering.

And this is another one was actually glued to one of the boxes and says from Tudor for a boy that is also two years old, like me, love.

One of my friends inside the elevators at the place that I was used to work there.

This is back in 2013. This is how the elevators were used.

And actually we had no complaints. Nobody said nothing. Everybody was walking the stairs because all of the elevators were filled with boxes.

We were using a lot of scotch tape, as you can see.

And there's many great stories that I can tell, you know, from this 13 years old project or NGO that wasn't an NGO.

But this one, this particular one of this photo, I want to share really quick.

I'm also looking at time.

We still have about 10 minutes. I was in one of our location centers and I see this girl, maybe about 12, 13 years old.

She comes in and she's asking, is this the shoebox project place?

And I said, yes. How can we help you? And she said, you can, but I can help you.

And then she's giving me this box. If you look closely, there's a pair of winter boots and some socks, I think two pair of socks there.

And she said, I'm sorry, I didn't have so much, but that's all I can give you.

And she said, my dad said, so her dad was working in Spain, outside of Romania. And the father sent her 150 euros so she can buy some winter boots for that winter.

And she went, she bought the boots.

And then as she was coming out of the shop, somebody gave her a shoebox flyer.

So we had students going around the streets and just distributing flyers.

So people would be aware of the project. So she walked by and she said, I think I can still wear my winter boots for another year.

And I want a girl to use these instead of me.

I was just shocked. I was, I had no words and she left.

And I think about 15 minutes later, I have a phone call, a man's voice, very angry.

And he says, are you Val? I said, yes. Are you Val from shoebox? He said, yeah.

You just tricked my daughter into giving you a pair of boots. And I just connected the dots in my mind.

I said, wait, sir, let me explain. And he said, he started crying and he said, no, no, no, no, I'm not angry.

I'm just excited because now I understand.

After I explained everything to her, to him and what the project was about, he said, now I understand.

I'm sorry. I've been a fool. I thought my daughter was tricked into giving away 150 euro worth of winter boots when actually she was helping somebody else, but he didn't understand.

And then this is another photo that I really liked.

You can see his shoes there in the back. And now he has new shoes in his feet.

Let's talk about the technology a bit because a project like this is not only made with soul and heart and people emotions.

And I'm sorry if I'm being emotional right now, but it's also about technology.

And I want to just go briefly through this before we end our time today. The website CMS for our website is WordPress.

And that's just because it was the easiest CMS that I could actually get my hands on and build the website myself.

The first theme, the first free theme for WordPress that we got was from vladstudio .com.

And if Vlad is watching or he's going to hear about this, thank you so much.

That was the first gift we actually got in the project of somebody giving us something for free so we can use.

Hosting, well, so we don't pay for hosting. This is just a personal VPS that I've been using and we hosted there.

All of our transactional emails, all of the forms, application forms, locations, and all that go through Mailgun.

Thank you so much, Mailgun. You still have your free plan, which I use.

I've been using for all these years. Thank you so much. Collecting cases, we do everything, all the sorting in Google Sheets.

Thank you, Google. So again, something that we don't have to pay for.

And then storing all of the photos, we do it on

I started the account, a free plan, legacy plan, I think you could call it now.

I think in third or fourth year of the project. And thank you so much,, for actually keeping that plan free.

And I think I'm over one terabytes or something like that of photos and videos throughout the years collected from the project.

And it's just an amazing resource that we can use. A bit of numbers.

We've collected about a million boxes so far. Collection locations happening in about 500 plus locations.

We have locations in about 25 countries, more than 25 countries, actually.

And there's 4000 plus volunteers involved every year. Some of them come many years, like we have people who are with us since year one, then we have somebody who just comes for a year and they leave and they come back and so on.

And then lives changed. I said countless, I don't know how many lives were changed.

But every now and then I get some message, some email, some interview invitation, and so on, from someone who said, you know, X amount of years ago, you helped me with this.

Or one of the most important stories that I have is the boy you saw in the introductory video.

He was about I think 13 or 14 when we shot the video.

He's an actual person. So he's not a paid actor or anything like that. And now he's 21.

He has his own child. And he is guess what, a location coordinator for shoebox.

Because good words and good deeds travel. And people learn when when somebody is being done something good, they will do good in exchange.

And if you get a good gift, and if you get someone something for free, you have to be a very bad person not to do the same for somebody else, you know, to pay for it.

And I encourage you all to do that.

What can you do? Well, you can join us. And if you email me at live studio at, I can give you much more information about how you can start your own shoebox project location, you don't have to be under our projects, you know, umbrella or anything, but I can give you some guidelines of how to organize people around you find children who are in situations where most likely nobody would have time, money, or even care to provide them with some gifts for this Christmas coming.

And then why not, you can do that. Organize, collect, sort boxes, find kids to give them to, and then just sort of relax and watch how good travels the word.

I hope this was a useful information for you. I hope you got inspired.

There's a lot of stories that I can I can tell you about this project. And, you know, it's been 13 years of so many experiences.

And please email us if you want more information.

I'm happy to share it. And coming up next, changing password policies at scale, presented by my colleague Junaid Ali.

It's gonna be the next segment.

Thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for watching. And I think I will just leave you with this one last statement.

I remember I asked our son, I think last week, I said, what do you think is the cause that made the shoebox project be what it is today, the scale, the growth and so on.

And I was maybe waiting for some very smart, some very, very deep, very detailed response.

He's now a teenager, he just turned 16.

And then he said, remember that you told me not to share with anybody else because this is a family secret, and it should be like this and so on.

I said, Yes, he said, I still understand that is valuable and that that it is important not to go around and brag.

But just think about it. If I hadn't say anything, none of these would have happened.

So then I had to sort of go back and think how much of the good things that we do today each day.

Now think about yourself, maybe you bought somebody a coffee, maybe you were in line at Starbucks, and you saw that guy not having enough money to pay, and you paid the coffee for him.

Or you help somebody, you know, unload some stuff from their car in front of their house or so just little things like this.

I can guarantee that that person would remember.

And the next opportunity they will have to do similar, they will.

And then if the person you do something to is maybe an enabler, maybe, you know, has a much larger capacity to perform something, maybe you only have $5 to help somebody, maybe he has 5 million.

But if he sees you giving from the few money that you have, something he might get or she might get motivated to give out of their multitude of funds even more.

And my encouragement for you is just, if you feel in your heart to do something good, and you don't, that's not good.

You have to go with your heart and love people, and they will love others.

And yeah, it's a world where I think all of us want to live in, where everybody loves everybody.

We had enough hate.

We don't need more hate. Thank you. Goodbye. you