An illustration of Jesus Christ with outstretched arms made a lasting impression on me.
My two younger sisters and I were removed from our home in Latvia when I was 7. Someone at school had noticed that we weren’t being taken care of by our parents. It was because they were abusing alcohol and drugs.
If I was hungry, I had to feed myself when food was available. I also took care of my siblings. Not being able to depend on anyone to take care of us taught me self-reliance, but that didn’t mean it bred confidence. Just the opposite.
I felt undeserving, unheard, and unseen. I don’t have any photos from my younger childhood and didn’t experience a birthday celebration until I was older.
Longing for a Family
We were placed in an orphanage, then transferred to a home with five other foster children a year later. All they had to do was say family and I said yes, desperate to experience what a happy family was like. But I feared being sent back to the orphanage.
In response, my interactions with others were transactional and devoid of emotion—“Where do you need me to be? What do you need me to do? What do you want from us?” I made sure I did everything perfectly.
The oldest of all the foster kids, I shouldered some of the responsibility for making sure the other children were fed, went to school, and did their homework.
In a large household, food was scarce.
Each day was about getting from one point to another point. One of the bright spots was going to music class after school. But that meant I got home later and ended up doing my homework around midnight.
My sisters and I were made fun of at school for our ill-fitting, secondhand clothes. Maintaining proper hygiene was a challenge since in order to conserve water, all eight of us foster children bathed one after the other in the same bathwater.
In a large household, food was scarce. I ate a slice of bread for breakfast and fixed dinner at night. We couldn’t afford to buy lunch at school, which was eight miles round trip on foot.
A Gift of Joy
One day when I was 10, I walked for miles with my foster mother in order to pick up food assistance. While in line, someone offered me a gift. I was hesitant and thought, “Why would somebody give me a gift?”
We carried the Operation Christmas Child shoebox gifts home for the children to open.
I was hesitant and thought, “Why would somebody give me a gift?”
It was the four longest miles in my entire life. It was cold and snowy, but an excitement to see what was inside coursed through my veins.
The first thing I saw when my siblings opened their gifts was their joy and happiness. It warmed my heart to see them happy. But I asked myself again, “Why would a stranger give me a gift?” I didn’t believe a stranger would feel love for me. But then I thought, maybe there is hope in this chaotic world and there are kind people who care for you.
Among the items in my shoebox gift were a toothbrush, coloring book, notebook, lipstick, and a purple mouse stuffed animal.
That purple mouse was the first toy I ever owned that belonged solely to me. I put it by my bed. I slept with it by my pillow. It was my protector. I felt it watched over me.
The lipstick was the first makeup I had ever seen or used. My siblings and I played dress up with it. I think we connected in a certain way through it. It made my siblings and I closer to each other.
Receiving that shoebox gift played a huge part in my life. It changed my perspective on life and people. I started to believe that there were good and thoughtful people out there.
The Greatest Gift
Along with the shoebox gifts, we each received a Gospel booklet called The Greatest Gift. The colorful illustrations piqued my curiosity.
It was my first time reading about Jesus. I thought, “Who was Jesus and why did people look up to Him so much?”
I thought, “Who was Jesus and why did people look up to Him so much?”
I didn’t understand what words like “prayer” and “resurrection” meant, but I was fascinated by the pictures of Jesus, particularly one with His welcoming arms outstretched.
Later, as I was experiencing a tough time holding out hope for a family to adopt me and my sisters, I remembered what I had read in The Greatest Gift.
As I prayed for the first time, it was like a warm, invisible blanket wrapped around me. It felt like someone was giving me a hug.
I continued praying on a regular basis, especially for a family to call my own, and a year later, my sisters and I were adopted by a family in the U.S.
The love they have for us is strong and pure.
When we went to church together, I saw red and green shoeboxes and immediately recognized that they were associated with Operation Christmas Child.
Each member of my family has packed shoebox gifts so that other children like me and my sisters can experience the love and joy found in Jesus Christ.
He loves me. He was there the whole time. I didn’t see or hear Him, but He was there. He really cares for me.
National Collection Week 2022 is Nov. 14-20. Please pack a shoebox!