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story.lead_photo.caption Nadia Karnatova stands with a group of members of Campfire USA in El Dorado. Karnatova shared her story about receiving a shoebox through Operation Christmas Child while living in Ukraine when she was 10 years old. Kaitlyn Rigdon/News-Times

Operation Christmas Child is celebrating its 25th year of being partners with Samaritan’s Purse, which helped grow the project to reach multiple countries around the world.

The project began in 1990 and merged with Samaritan’s Purse in 1995.

According to their website, Operation Christmas Child is a project that uses gift-filled shoeboxes to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way to children in need around the world.

In 25 years, nearly 158 million children around the world have received an Operation Christmas Child shoebox. The overall goal for this year’s project is 11 million donated shoeboxes.

Last year in south Arkansas, almost 50,000 shoeboxes were donated to the cause. This year’s goal for the area is 50,001 shoeboxes.

Nadia Karnatova was directly affected by Operation Christmas Child, as she received a shoebox when she was 10 years old in Ukraine.

Karnatova spoke to children at the El Dorado Campfire USA building on Sept. 8, about how she felt when she received her shoebox, and the impact it left on her.

Karnatova grew up with a big family, having seven brothers and one sister. She grew up very poor, with her father struggling to find work because of his Christian faith.

“When we needed food, my mom would pray and God would always send friends to come to our house, or strangers sometimes, and they would help us with whatever we needed,” she said. “People’s generosity helped us to have a good life.”

Karnatova, now 33, described the winters in Ukraine, stating that it would snow for months. She said she remembers having to walk to school in the snow without warm shoes or a jacket. She said a lot of times her parents wouldn’t send some of her siblings to school out of fear they would become sick.

Photo by Kaitlyn Rigdon/News-Times
Nadia Karnatova shares her story about receiving a shoebox through Operation Christmas Child when living in Ukraine when she was 10 years old. She is now a national speaker for the project. Kaitlyn Rigdon/News-Times

During the winter when Karnatova was 10, her mom’s friend invited them to a Christmas party at a church, where they would be talking about Jesus. She said she remembered how excited she was because being open about loving Jesus was not very accepted in Ukraine at the time. She said she always feared talking about her faith at school because she would be bullied.

She talked about how long it took for all 11 family members to get to the church for the party. “We were still so excited because we were going to go to a party and they were going to talk about Jesus, and we loved Jesus,” she said.

At the party, Karnatova remembers singing songs and there being a lot of children from her school that had never heard about God before. “I saw a few of them there and I was excited, but at the same time, I was trying to not get noticed by them because I knew if I did, they might bully me at school,” she said.

Karnatova said the thing she remembered the most was receiving a shoebox when leaving the party.

She was told to open her shoebox because there was a present, and that the present was there because God loves her. “People packaged the shoeboxes because they knew Jesus loves us and it’s a present for us because we were special. We got excited,” she added.

One of the only things she remembers from inside her shoebox was a Barbie doll. She said she was so excited because she had never had one before.

“My mom could not get us toys because the only thing they could buy us sometimes was food and that’s all they had money for,” she said. “So that day when I received my Barbie doll, that really, really made me feel special because that’s something I never thought I would get and I was so excited.”

Photo by Kaitlyn Rigdon/News-Times
Nadia Karnatova shows an example of a Barbie doll she received in her shoebox when she was 10 years old. The Barbie doll she received was the first toy she had growing up. Kaitlyn Rigdon/News-Times

The only other thing she remembers was going home and all of her family members having their own toothbrushes. She said up until then, her family all shared two toothbrushes at their home.

In 2000, her family moved to America through a Christian refugee program. She was 14 years old at the time. She said when she moved, her mom gave the Barbie doll to one of her friend’s daughters.

Karnatova said about two years ago, after she had been sharing her story, her mom’s friend called and said she remembered Karnatova’s mom giving them that doll, but had since passed it to another little girl.

“That Barbie is still out there,” Karnatova said. “So this is what you can do when you pack shoeboxes, literally you can make a child feel happy. You can help a struggling parent.”

She said once they moved to America, her parents no longer had to worry about providing food for her family. “We were safe, because we had crime around us in Ukraine, and a future … including education and all of the opportunities,” she added.

Karnatova said her parents began packing shoeboxes three years ago. “They were so grateful to be able to pass it forward,” she said. “It was a blessing to see them doing that because people have given them so much, it taught them how to be givers.”

Sheila Baker of El Dorado talked about how packing shoeboxes has had a huge impact on her family. Baker said it began when she and her husband would pack shoeboxes at Immanuel Baptist Church in El Dorado.

Now, Baker packs shoeboxes with her family, which has brought them closer. When she first started packing, she invited her sister and nephew to help. The following year, her parents became involved in the project as well.

“They just kind of jumped in,” Baker said. “My dad helped load the truck, my mom was helping pack shoeboxes, so it’s always just so fun to see my whole family working.”

Baker said that this project is something her family talks about year-round.

“I think for me, it’s one of the things that’s been a huge impact for me because it’s not only hearing the stories about how a shoebox impacts lives on the other side of the world, but how it’s impacted just my family,” Baker said. “My whole life, (my family) talked about ministry and they talked about doing mission, and this is really the first time we’ve all come together to do a ministry.”

She said her mother even crocheted over 100 hats that went into the shoeboxes one year. Now, her sister is a drop-off leader in Maumelle.

Baker added that it’s nothing for her to come back to work from vacation, and her desk be full of shoeboxes. “They know not to throw shoeboxes away … take them to Sheila’s desk,” she said laughing.

Packing shoeboxes began in south Arkansas in 1994 or 1995. The first year people packed, they shipped 12 shoeboxes.

Todd Edwards, regional director for Samaritan’s Purse’s mid-south office, said Operation Christmas Child is one of multiple projects through Samaritan’s Purse, which is an international relief ministry with a Gospel centered focus.

“We have a mission of saying this shoebox gift is a gift that does bring joy to a child, but the real gift is the good news of Jesus Christ,” Edwards said.

He said usually there is a presentation prior to the children claiming the gifts, with many of them having the opportunity to go through a 12 lesson discipleship program afterwards.

According to their website, in many places, they also offer The Greatest Gift, a Gospel story booklet Samaritan’s Purse developed for shoebox recipients. As a result of what they learn in The Greatest Journey, boys and girls grow in Christ and share with friends and family.

“The students also invite others to their graduations where the Gospel is shared,” the website states. “This often brings parents, siblings and friends to accept Christ and become active members in the local church. Families are reached, churches grow, new churches are started and communities are transformed.”

Anyone can pack a shoebox, and the Operation Christmas Child website includes suggested items.

Suggested items include a “wow” item (doll, stuffed animal), hair brushes, toothbrushes, washcloths, clothing, toys and a personal note.

The personal note can include a photo of the person packing the box and their family.

Also, if a packer donates nine dollars online, they can receive a tracking label to follow their box and discover its destination.

National collection week for Operation Christmas Child is Nov. 12-19, with a drop-off location being held at Immanuel Baptist church in El Dorado. The central drop-off location will be at the current Immanuel Baptist Church building at 701 S. West Ave. and not the new building that is currently under construction.

For more information on Operation Christmas Child, visit their website at https://www.samaritanspurse.org/what-we-do/operation-christmas-child/.

Kaitlyn Rigdon can be reached at 870-862-6611 or krigdon@eldoradonews.com.

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