Operation Christmas Child Volunteer Serves Despite Debilitating Illnesses

January 19, 2017 • United States
Operation Christmas Child year-round volunteer Cathi Mitchell
Cathi Mitchell hasn't let physical struggles keep her from packing Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts and volunteering.

A Pennsylvania resident volunteers year-round with Operation Christmas Child even though she lives with much physical pain.

Cathi Mitchell is an overcomer. The 51-year-old family therapist from Erie, Pennsylvania, is a year-round volunteer with Operation Christmas Child who lives with two debilitating and incurable illnesses. Dysautonomia, an autonomic nervous system dysfunction, and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, leave her not knowing if she will be able to get out of bed in the morning.

You Can Volunteer Year-Round

When Cathi was 14 and active as a gymnast, runner, and basketball player, she started passing out, puzzling her doctor.

She had been hospitalized for a bone disease at age 2, but the fainting was unrelated to her previous medical history. Cathi lived with the unknown.

“I just felt sick if I wasn’t active, so I stayed active,” she said, risking the chance of passing out during her activities.

During her freshman year of college Cathi woke up in the middle of the night screaming because she could not move her legs. A week later, motion returned, but again, doctors couldn’t find anything wrong.

As a sophomore, Cathi tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at a track meet and had to have surgery. This was the first of three times she had the same injury—the others came while playing basketball and coaching gymnastics.

Still, Cathi stayed active as much as possible. She ran marathons and even ran several 5K races backward.

Over the years, she often threw up for no particular reason. Friends thought she was anorexic, but after going to support groups for the illness, Cathi knew she wasn’t dealing with anorexia.

Cathi continued to visit different doctors, but no one could determine the cause of her symptoms.

A Turn for the Worse

Almost a decade ago, Cathi was in a car accident that kept her from being active for a season. As soon as she recovered from the accident, she got the flu.

After this long stretch without regular exercise, Cathi began passing out more often—sometimes 20 times in one day. Once, she passed out and fell down a set of steps. She was unable to drive and afraid to leave the house because she could faint at any time.

“My primary care physician wouldn’t rest until he figured it out,” Cathi said. He sent Cathi to a cardiologist who finally diagnosed the problem.

Cathi was passing out because her heart rate and blood pressure were dropping too low, causing dysautonomia. Cathi now stays in bed for an hour after she wakes up to do exercises and let her blood pressure rise a bit. She also wears compression stockings whenever she is up.

Today her dysautonomia is somewhat controlled because she wears a pacemaker. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome still causes her to injure herself a lot and leaves her with degenerative arthritis of the spine, hip, and knee. Cathi anticipates both a hip and knee replacement are in her future.

“I am in tremendous pain,” Cathi said. “Behind closed doors in my bedroom, I do a lot of crying.”

But she doesn’t stay there.

Beyond Survival to Service

While some people in her condition would be focused only on surviving, Cathi is intent on serving. “Jesus commanded us to serve and I want to be like Him. My one and only goal is to be like Him,” she said.

In college, friends nicknamed her “God Girl” because she talked about Him so much.

For years, Cathi’s love for the Lord and desire to serve has overflowed into Operation Christmas Child, the Samaritan’s Purse project that sends gift-filled shoeboxes to children in need around the world to show them God’s love.

“Volunteering takes my mind off my pain.”

“I love volunteering because it takes my mind off my pain and also gives me an opportunity to stay active,” Cathi said.

When her daughters, now 17 and 25, were young, they packed shoeboxes full of toys, school supplies, and hygiene items. Her youngest daughter enjoyed hosting packing parties when they invited others to join them in the fun. They even used Operation Christmas Child as part of their homeschool studies. When they looked at photos of children with shoeboxes, the girls would often say, “Mom, I love this picture. I want to do some research and find out what country it is.”

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

In 2014, God moved Cathi to do more. A picture of someone wearing sandals made out of a flattened plastic bottle and a piece of rope grabbed her attention. She rallied people to give flip-flops for shoebox gifts, posting flyers around town inviting people to “Walk a Mile in Their Shoes.”

“Even little kids can participate in this. They can take money from their piggy bank and buy a pair of flip-flops,” Cathi said.

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

Cathi organized volunteers to donate more than 2,700 pairs of sandals for shoebox gifts.

On the designated day, people brought flip-flips to a quarter-mile track and lined them up four abreast all the way around. Volunteers then used the more than 2,700 pairs of sandals to fill shoeboxes at a community-wide packing party.

In July 2015, Cathi took a step further and became a year-round volunteer with the Northwest Pennsylvania Area Team. She serves in community relations, making phone calls to organizations and asking them to get involved with Operation Christmas Child.

“I’m trying to reach as many people as possible, getting the word out in different places, thinking outside of the box,” Cathi said.

Cathi is also a voice teacher, and last year her students promoted Operation Christmas Child through their performances that included a stuffed animal drive for shoebox gifts.

“I want to spread the word so children have an opportunity to learn that Christ died for them and that someone cares enough to think about them.”

Cathi refuses to let chronic illnesses and pain stop her from serving God.

“Whenever He asks us to do something, He’s going to give us whatever we need to do it,” she said.

View roles available as a year-round volunteer for Operation Christmas Child.