RUSSELLVILLE, Mo. — Imagine being a small girl, searching for food to subsist with your younger sister, often struggling through hunger pains. That was the reality for Elena Hagemeier as a child of the Soviet Union, someone who saw entering an orphanage at age 8 as a "safe haven," simply because it offered schooling and three meals a day.
"There was no hope, no joy," Hagemeier said of this time of her life. It was then she received a shoebox from Operation Christmas Child — the first gift she ever received.
The first gift she ever received in her life was a shoebox from Operation Christmas Child, a Samaritan's Purse program in which kind-hearted individuals pack a shoebox with presents for a disadvantaged boy or girl from somewhere around the world. She said the program takes a box full of dollar-store items and God makes it so much more.
"In the past 25 years, more than 157 million shoeboxes filled with school supplies, hygiene items and toys have been distributed to children in over 150 countries around the world," Operation Christmas Child Area Coordinator Michelle Hale said. "Every 60 seconds, four children will make a decision to accept Jesus as their Savior!"
Hagemeier and her sister were adopted together by a Missouri family in 2004.
She spoke of her experiences June 17 at Russellville Baptist Church, which has participated in Operation Christmas Child since 2013 and usually packs an average of 30 boxes each year.
In the fall, parishioners donate money or items like stuffed animals, soap, toys, clothing and school supplies, which are organized into boxes at a packing party. The children of the church each pack at least one box, and the parishioners pray for every child that will receive the gifts.
"Shoeboxes are a great way to get the kids in our church involved in missions," Russellville Baptist shoebox coordinator Sarah Stillfield said. "Each child packs a box and gets to personally pick items to put inside. It's fun to watch them pick items and think about what the child receiving the box might enjoy."
Stillfield said the shoebox program impacts the lives of many children, as well as their families and communities, because receiving gifts is a pretty rare thing for a lot of the recipients and each gift comes with a Christian gospel message.
"Beyond the fun of the toys inside, they all get to hear the message of the Gospel, which is an entirely different kind of gift," Stillfield said.