When Tyrel Wolfe was 7 years old, he sent a girl a shoebox gift that would change their lives forever
For Tyrel Wolfe and Joana Marchan, an act of charity led to lasting love.
It all started in 2000, when Wolfe, a then-7-year-old in Midville, Idaho, helped his parents pack Christmas shoebox gifts for children in the Philippines. The project, run by Operation Christmas Child through Samaritan’s Purse, involved filling the shoeboxes with school supplies, toiletries and small toys.
As part of the project, each shoebox-packer had to include a photo with their gift. Wolfe slipped in a photo of himself in cowboy gear against a rustic mountain background. He gave the shoebox to his aunt, who dropped it off at church.
For almost a decade, he never gave it a second thought.
Then, one day in 2009, Wolfe, now 21, got a Facebook friend request from a Joana Marchan. Not knowing who she was, he ignored the request. Two years passed. She then sent another request in 2011. This time, he was curious. Wolfe messaged Marchan asking her how she knew him.
When she replied, she told him about the shoebox gift that had meant so much to her. Wolfe asked his mother, Denise, who reminded him he had taken part in the charitable activity as a boy.
Marchan, it turned out, had sent a thank-you note after receiving the shoebox, but it got lost in the mail.
“I was curious as to what he was like now,” Marchan tells PEOPLE. “Was he going to college like me?”
They started communicating over Facebook and found they shared a lot of common interests such as listening to Christian music and religious faith.
After a year of corresponding online, they decided to meet in person. By May 2013, after graduating from high school, Wolfe had saved up enough money working for his dad as a trail-and-bridge builder for state parks and flew to Quezon City, a suburb of Manila in the Philippines, for 10 days.
“I knew I was taking a big risk,” Wolfe tells PEOPLE. “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.”
Wolfe spent the entire flight feeling nervous, anxious and excited all at the same time.
“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.”
She felt the same way.
Marchan’s family opened his eyes as to how other people live. Her house is 10-by-19 feet with very 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.
Following her family’s tradition, the two weren t allowed to become a couple officially until Wolfe got permission from Marchan’s father. When the visit reached its end, they were both heartbroken to say farewell.
“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.”
After he returned home to Idaho, the two Skyped and continued Facebook messaging. Wolfe ended up booking another month-long trip beginning on Nov. 27.
During his trip, he asked Marchan’s father, Jun, for her hand in marriage. He gave his permission, but Wolfe’s mother, Rocel, 46, wanted the couple to wait. She worried they were too young.
Wolfe didn’t give up. After some convincing, his father, Ivan, 44, bought a plane ticket, and in May 2014, took a 10-day trip to Manila to meet Marchan’s family.
During his visit, Wolfe recalls, Marchan’s mother went up to his father and said: “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 decided to live in the United States because Wolfe’s job was too good to give up. He was making enough money that allowed him to support both of them and also send some to Manila for her family.
On Aug. 19, Marchan had an interview at the embassy in Manila and got approved for a visa. By Sept. 4, they were off to start a life together in the small town of Midville.
Sadly, Marchan’s parents couldn’t get a visa so they were unable to attend the wedding, but participated via Skype. It was held on Oct. 5 at Wolfe’s parents’ ranch, with about 100 guests. Wolfe wore a barong, the traditional shirt worn by Filipino grooms.
The newlyweds now live in their own house in Midville, a quarter mile from Wolfe’s parents.
It was Marchan’s first time in the United States, and since Wolfe’s job requires a lot of traveling, she’s already been to eight states. She accompanies him and always makes sure there is dinner on the table of their RV when he gets home from work.
“It was a big change and adjustment for me,” Marchan says. “I was raised in the city and now I’m living in the country with much less people and more space, but it’s a beautiful place.”
They plan on heading back to the Philippines to have a second wedding ceremony, attended by her parents. In the meantime, they’ve made a commitment to pack a shoebox every holiday season – starting this year – and include a note in it telling their story.
They packed their box and delivered it to Samaritan’s Purse headquarters located in North Carolina, which was convenient because they were there for work, anyway.
“They were excited to see behind the scenes of where it all happened for them,” Rachel Mills, assistant director of Operation Christmas Child, says. “We want these children to experience love, and that’s exactly what they found. It was like a needle in a haystack.”
With more than 113 million shoeboxes sent to over 130 countries since the project launched in 1993, Marchan received Wolfe’s.
“We don t want to give them some fantasy, but we do want to show that we care and want to share our love,” Wolfe says. “We both feel so blessed and grateful that Operation Christmas Child brought us together.”