In 2000 7-year-old Tyrel Wolfe participated in the well known Operation Christmas Child project through Samaritan’s Purse. With thousands of other children, Wolfe packed a shoebox full of school supplies, toiletries and small toys to send to a fellow child in another country.
As a final touch, Wolfe added a photo of himself wearing cowboy attire, holding a lariat and his address. He gave his Christmas box to his Aunt to drop off at the church and never gave the box a second thought.
Seven thousand miles away Joana Marchan received the shoebox at a vacation Bible school in Manila, Philippines. With Wolfe’s Idaho address, Marchan wrote a thank you note, however, it got lost in the mail.
In 2009, Marchan decided to look for the boy who had sent her the Christmas box almost a decade earlier. She searched for him on Facebook and found a hit with an Idaho address. She took a chance and sent him a friend request.
Not knowing a Joana Marchan, Wolfe deleted the request.
Two years later Marchan sent him another friend request.
“I was curious as to what he was like now,” Marchan says. “Was he going to college like me?”
This time, Wolfe sent Marchan a message asking how he knew her. Marchan was able to explain he had sent her a Christmas shoebox in 2000.
From that point, the two stayed in touch and consistently messaged back and forth. They quickly discovered that they shared a lot of common interests including their faith in Jesus.
They continued to message each other over the next year. After getting to know each other during that year Wolfe decided he wanted to travel to the Philippines so the two could meet in person. By May 2013 he had saved enough working for his dad to purchase a ticket to Quezon City for 10 days.
“I knew I was taking a big risk,” Wolfe says. “I had never traveled alone, let alone to a foreign country before and I was meeting people I didn’t know or even knew really existed.”
The flight was full of butterflies as the nerves and excitement swirled in his stomach.
“When I finally got there and saw her, I had to punch myself a couple times because I thought it was a dream,” Wolfe says. “I was immediately attracted to her.”
The feeling was definitely mutual—Joana burst into tears when she saw Tyrel.
During Wolfe’s time with the Marchan family he was able to experience how many outside of America live. Marchan’s family home is 10×19 feet with little furniture and all eight family members sleep on the floor of one room.
“Here in America, a lot of people are blessed with a lot of things, and after seeing Joana’s home, I’ve gained a different outlook on how people live,” Wolfe says.
To respect her culture, Wolfe had agreed to wait until he could ask her father, Jun, in-person to officially date Marchan. He asked her father midway through his visit who quickly agreed.
The goodbyes were heartbreaking.
“It was one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had to say because we didn’t know the next time we’d see each other,” Wolfe says. “I told her I’m going to do whatever it takes to come back to her.”
The next few months were filled with Facebook messages and Skype calls. During that time Wolfe saved to make another trip in November to return to Marchan—this time for a month. This time he would ask her father for permission to marry Joana.
However, Wolfe’s mother was concerned that the couple was too young. Wolfe wasn’t going to give up. To settle any nerves the families had about the young couple marrying Wolfe’s father, Ivan, bought a ticket to visit the Marchans in May 2014.
During their visit, Wolfe recalls, Marchan’s mother saying to his father: “You are a sign from God that we are allowing Tyrel and Joana to marry. If you had not come, we wouldn’t have let the relationship continue.” The families celebrated by throwing an engagement party.
The couple got married on October 5, 2014, outdoors on Tyrel’s parents’ 400-acre cattle ranch in Midvale, Idaho. The groom wore a traditional shirt often worn by Filipino grooms.
As a special touch, wedding guests were encouraged to pack an Operation Christmas Child shoebox and bring it to the wedding. It has also become a tradition for the couple to pack a shoebox every holiday season.
The newlyweds now live a quarter-mile from Wolfe’s parents in their own house in Midville, Idaho. They welcomed a baby boy to their family in June.