It all started with a yo-yo and a box full of hope.
Olga was a 10-year-old in a Ukrainian orphanage when she received a shoe box full of gifts from Operation Christmas Child, operated by Samaritan's Purse.
• Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian relief and evangelism organization headed by Franklin Graham. Samaritan’s Purse currently works in more than 100 countries to provide aid to victims of war, disease, disaster, poverty and famine.
• In 2017, Operation Christmas Child hopes to collect enough shoe box gifts to reach another 12 million children in countries like Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda and Ukraine. The goal for Northwest Arkansas is 20,000 shoe boxes.
• Anyone can pack a shoe box. Individuals, families, churches and groups fill empty shoe boxes with school supplies, hygiene items and fun toys, such as dolls or soccer balls.
• Boxes will be collected Nov. 13-20 at designated locations. Locations can be located by zip code on the Samaritan’s Purse website in October.
• The website also tells how to pack a shoe box, offers lists of gift suggestions.
• For $9, donors can choose to receive tracking information as to where their box is delivered. More information can be found at samaritanspurse.org/occ.
See Elizabeth’s story
"It was an exciting day when got the Operation Christmas Child boxes," remembered that orphan, now adopted and named Elizabeth Henry. "We were told we were going to get gifts -- which was very rare.
"I remember the moment seeing that green and red box. It was pure joy. I wanted that box."
Henry said she ripped open the box and found school supplies for girls, a small Bible in her language and the yo-yo. "I'd never seen one," she said. "I showed it off, but I didn't know a lot about a yo-yo. Eventually, I figured it out."
But that yo-yo was more than a toy for an orphan who didn't have many.
"The yo-yo represented hope," Henry said. "That was the first time I truly felt someone loved me, that someone cared. That's exactly what I needed, just when I needed it.
"And that was the time I accepted Jesus in my life."
Henry spoke Sept. 22 at Fellowship Bible Church in Rogers, sharing her testimony and her memories of the Operation Christmas Child gift box. She serves as a National Full Circle Speaker for Samaritan's Purse.
Henry explained that she was born into a family of alcoholics. When her father was killed in an accident, the family moved in with her grandparents, but they were just too old to care for Henry and her half-sister Tanya.
"So I became a full-time mom at age 8 to my sister, age 6," Henry shared. "I even decided it was a good idea for us to run away in search of a better life."
Found at the city bus station, the police took the sisters to a detention center, then an orphanage. After a year there, Tanya's father came to take her to his home. "I was not his daughter, so he did not want me," Henry remembered. "I was losing the only family I ever had. It was very difficult.
"I was praying to the Lord for something to let me go on when I received the box," she continued. "From then on, I knew he had a hand in my life."
Through the Operation Christmas Child program, Henry was able to enroll in The Greatest Journey, "a 12-lesson Bible student course guiding them through what it means to faithfully follow Christ," reads the Samaritan's Purse website.
Without the hope that came with that box, "I am not sure what would have happened, to be honest," Henry said. "It was really hard being surrounded by so much poverty and friends at the orphanage who were drinking and doing drugs. I kept praying for a sign from God, and the shoe box showed up. I think if it didn't, I would have gotten discouraged and completely given up and got involved with my friends."
As participants pack the boxes, Samaritan's Purse asks the donors to pray.
"The prayer is the most important part of the box," Henry said. "Pray to ensure that it goes to the right child, who needs hope."
Henry said many children also appreciate pictures of the families who donated the boxes. "At the orphanage, the kids would take the pictures and put them above their beds, and that became their family. And there were actually children adopted that way."
But Henry's story is different. She traveled with a choir from the orphanage for a two-week tour in the United States, where they stayed with host families. In Williamsburg, Va., she stayed with Jean and Jim Henry and their daughters Taylor and Katie (also adopted from Ukraine).
"We did not talk much," Henry said. When the young choir members were with the group, they had Russian translators -- but not in the homes. "So Mom used a dictionary," Henry recalled.
"The time was an exciting adventure for us. It was the first time we'd been on a plane. The first time to go to Walmart. I felt like a part of the family. I fit in."
On the last day before Elizabeth left the Henry home, the family went to Walmart to buy toys for the children at the orphanage. But Henry fell asleep in the car, so Jim Henry stayed with her while the rest of the family shopped.
"Dad tells the story that he looked back at me and heard a voice saying, 'She is your daughter,'" Henry shared.
Before she left, the Henry family asked Elizabeth if they could adopt her. She agreed. "They were believers," she said.
"It was a difficult two-year process," Elizabeth Henry recalled. But the family sent letters and packages during that time, and Jim Henry visited the orphanage on a mission trip.
Then, in 2007, with Elizabeth Olga Henry now 13, the adoption was final, and she came home to the United States.
Henry admitted it was a big adjustment -- and not just learning English. "I'd never had a father figure in my life," she said. "I was an adult at age 8. I basically fended for myself, and here I had a dad. That was difficult, but we eventually figured it out."
Based on experiences with Katie's adoption, the family immediately put Elizabeth in counseling and enrolled her in a Christian school.
"My parents did a great job," Elizabeth said, her deep love for them obvious. "They really knew what they were doing. They called on their Christian faith."
And others from the orphanage also were adopted in Virginia, so the kids hold yearly reunions to catch up and speak Russian. "And they are believers," Henry said.
Henry graduated this spring from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg, Va., with a bachelor's degree in human development and psychology. She plans to pursue a master's degree in public health. And she spearheaded Operation Christmas Child campaigns at her school.
Henry does remember her yo-yo, but she did not bring it with her to the United States. "In the orphanage, we shared everything, so I left it behind."
Elizabeth Henry's story came full circle when she traveled in July to Madagascar and was able to distribute Operation Christmas Child boxes.
"I didn't see God work until the last day," she said.
The group had traveled to a remote island and had to climb a mountain to get to the orphanage. "And as we walked up that mountain, we heard the children laughing and singing about Christ at the top of their lungs, praising the Lord," she said.
Yet, a 3-year-old named Sanya didn't open her box. Rather, she just sat with her hands on it, Henry related.
So Henry went to Sanya and whispered in her ear, "God loves you," in her own language. "She instantly got a huge smile on her face," Henry recalled. "Once she trusted me, I picked her up on my lap, and she started going through stuff in box."
Sanya's favorite was a stuffed gingerbread man. "I tickled her cheeks with it, then she spread out her arms and gave him a big hug," Henry said with her own grin. "That was her version of the yo-yo.
"I found myself back in the orphanage. It was just as exciting. Now she had something she could hold on to."
The children in Madagascar lived in "terrible places," Henry said, noting dirty hands and cuts in their feet.
"I want to help these kids populating forgotten places," she said. "It's an honor and a privilege. I saw greatness.
"People don't realize what they do in children's lives," Henry continued. "It's not just boxes of toys, it's boxes of hope. In these terrible places, the boxes are sent with a message, and the greatest gift is to know God.
"Your work does not go unnoticed. [Because of the donors], there's an army of people with Christ in their lives."
Henry did not remember her own gift until her adopted family was shopping to fill their own Operation Christmas Child boxes. She started a campaign with extended family members, and the group donated about 14 boxes.
"The next year, I asked if I could pack more boxes," Henry recalled. "Mom thought I could do two more. I said I was thinking more like 100."
Henry's requests for boxes broadened. She even took a box to her dentist to fill. That was 2011, and she collected 150 boxes. The next year it was 268. It's become a family tradition, she said.
Shopping for Operation Christmas Child gifts also has become a tradition of the Melissa and Dewayne Fink family of Springdale. They collect them for their church, Fellowship Bible.
"Our family comes together to remember the reason we do Christmas," Melissa Fink said. "We go shopping together, and we each fill a box. It's a fun time for our family."
Fink's two daughters, Ashlynn, 7, and Lauren, 15, fill boxes for children their own ages, while the parents usually fill boxes for boys. Ashlynn fills hers with "stuff she likes" -- crayons, coloring books, gloves, hard candy. Lauren's box might contain a brush, nail polish, hard candy, school supplies, a journal. The boys open gifts like cars.
"Anything, really," Melissa said. "They go to parts of the world where they don't have anything."
Henry noted that the boys she met in Madagascar really liked receiving soccer balls, which were packed deflated but came with hand pumps. The girls liked Barbie dolls and stuffed toys.
And in the boxes Henry packs ... "I always add a yo-yo."
NAN Religion on 09/30/2017
Print Headline: Operation Christmas Child