LEXINGTON, N.C. — An 8-year long-distance friendship will change in three months when a Lexington couple will host a family from Bangalore, India, who they met through an Operation Christmas Child shoe box.

"It's hard to believe. The family is excited," Judy Deal said. "It will be a dream come true. I hope they can experience what a big family they have here and how much love is here for them."

Deal along with her husband, William, came in contact with the family in 2006 when the Bangalore family wrote a letter thanking them for sending a Christmas present the year before. The Deals have been participating in the Samaritan's Purse program that collects gift-filled shoe boxes and delivers them to children living in desperate situations around the world since the early 2000s through their church, First United Methodist. They send about five boxes every year during the holidays. That marked the first time anyone had responded to them.

"Operation Christmas Child is a chance to show a child love: love from you and the love of God," Judy Deal said. "It offers these children sometimes their first gift. These boxes are a cherished item. If they had not wrote that first letter to thank us, we wouldn't be here now. God was a part of it."

When the Deals first started interacting with the family, it consisted of Brian and Esther Rex and their daughter, Fabiana, who is now 10 years old. Then Joseph, now 7, came along later. Deal said Brian Rex was disowned by his family for being a Christian, and a lot of Esther Rex's family is deceased.

"They needed somebody," Judy Deal said. "We don't have any children. This family has become our family. We are their family, the only family that cares and loves them. They call us grandma and grandpa."

Over the years the two families have become close, communicating through letters, email and the telephone. The father, Brian Rex, is the only one who speaks English.

The Deals have even sent money to the family to help them with medical assistance, a car, a space heater and for the children to go to school.

Judy Deal said her church family has also helped with monetary donations that went to the Rexes' church and to purchase school supplies for more than 100 children.

"Over the years different people have helped us help them. We want them to meet their American family. We just want them to know it wasn't just us. We have thanked people in various ways over the years. This will be Bryan and Esther's chance to thank them face to face. I thank the church for being so supportive," Judy Deal said.

The Deals have been raising money the past five years to bring the family to the United States, Judy Deal said. She thought it was important for them to visit Lexington to meet the people who have been assisting with sending donations. To raise funds, the Deals held several yard sales, movie nights and other small functions such as collecting change at church.

The family is scheduled to arrive in New York City at the end of March to meet William and Judy Deal. Everyone will tour New York and then take Amtrak to Washington, D.C., to stay there for a couple of days before heading back to North Carolina. After spending a couple of days in Lexington, Judy Deal said they will also visit the mountains, the coast and other places in the state.

Before leaving in mid-June, the Deals will take the family to Disney World before heading back to New York for the Rexes to fly back. The children are on summer break from school from April to June.

"This is their first time flying, coming to America, and it may be their last time," Judy Deal said. "We want to show them as much as we can of America and the East Coast, just experience everyday life."

They have purchased passports, visas and airline tickets for the whole family. They applied for a home equity loan to help pay for everything. Judy Deal said they need additional assistance to help pay for hotel stays, souvenirs, food and other expenses.

Those interested in helping can send a donation of cash or pre-paid Visa cards to the Deals, 337 Pinnix Drive, Lexington, NC 27295 or contact the family at trainnut10@lexcominc.net.

Judy Deal said tickets to zoos, aquariums or other attractions are appreciated, too. There's another yard sale planned next month where the Deals are seeking items to sell.

William Deal, who is retired, is executive director of the Tourism Recreation Investment Partnership and a former Lexington fire chief. Judy Deal retired from the department of social services this past December and is the relay center coordinator for the Operation Christmas Child operation in Davidson County; her church is a relay center. She has even shared a video from Brian Rex with community members in the past talking about how much the shoeboxes mean to families.

There will also be a day where the family will speak at church. Judy Deal said the community will be invited when all of the information has been planned.

Information from: The Dispatch, http://www.the-dispatch.com