God’s love entered Elizabeth Groff’s life in the form of a yellow yo-yo packaged inside a shoebox.
She remembers the feeling of light—in sharp contrast to the darkness that surrounded her for so much of her childhood.
At the time, she didn’t know anything about Samaritan’s Purse or Operation Christmas Child, which sends shoeboxes of gifts to children in need around the world. Groff was born in a small town in Southern Ukraine. Both of her parents were alcoholics and her father was killed in an alcohol-related accident when she was just a year old, she said.
Her mother wasn’t able to properly care for her on her own, so they went to live with her grandparents. While there, her mother gave birth again to a little girl named Tanya. Their mother was rarely home, so even though she was just a child herself, Groff took on much of the responsibility of caring for her little sister.
“I kind of had to grow up and become the head of the household at a very young age,” she told CT.
Her mother gave birth to a third girl and Groff’s load increased.
Then tragedy struck. Groff’s mother fed the new baby alcohol instead of milk and the little girl died at seven months old.
“That was really hard for me. I was taking care of her,” Groff recalled. “I felt like I did something wrong.”
Although she was only seven, Groff decided in that moment that she needed to find a better life for her sister Tanya. She impulsively decided to run away with the four-year-old.
“I just took her by the hand and got on the bus and we left,” she said.
They didn’t get very far, but it would turn out to be the gateway to a better life for both of them.
The police spotted the two girls hanging out by the bus station at the neighboring town and took them to a detention center while officials investigated. The situation at home was so dire, the detention center seemed amazing to Groff.
“Life was much better because we didn't have to worry about food, we didn't have to worry about having shelter and we had kids we could play with there our age,” she said.
Officials decided that she should not be in her mother’s custody. Groff was, she said, officially classified as an orphan and sent to an orphanage. It was a good place that met all her physical needs, but Groff still felt the darkness around her. At the Orthodox church services the orphans attended, she learned of God and started to cry out to him.
“What's the purpose of my life?” she begged. “Why am I here?”
She remembers the day her prayers were answered.
The director of the center where she was staying called her and a group of other children into a small room. They were told they were going to receive gifts from people who wanted them to know how much God loved them.
“I just remember being so excited about this gift because that was the first gift that I had ever received in my life,” she said.
Inside the box were coloring books and little girl accessories, but her favorite item was a yellow yo-yo. As she held it, she thought about the idea that God loved her and she believed it. The darkness in her life was flooded with light.
“I just remember in that moment realizing that I'm not alone,” she recalled. “Some stranger somewhere in this world packed that shoebox just for me. And I realized that God has been with me this whole time and that he's not going to leave me broken.”
For her, the shoebox was God saying: “You are not an orphan. You are my daughter.”
A couple of years later Groff was adopted into an American family and from then on has tried to spread that same message of hope to others with shoeboxes, which she would learn was an initiative of Samaritan’s Purse.
While a student at Virginia Tech, Groff led a team of fellow students to pack shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child—an annual tradition.
Now 28, Groff lives in Texas with her husband and is a national spokesperson for Operation Christmas Child.
This year is a special year for the organization as they are preparing to deliver the 200th millionth shoebox. Groff will have the opportunity to deliver that special box to a Ukrainian refugee.
“All I can say is that we serve a faithful God,” Groff said.
Edward Graham, son of Samaritan’s Purse founder Franklin Graham, is equally excited about this year’s milestone.
Edward was just a small child when Operation Christmas Child started, but he remembers going down and helping process the shoeboxes.
He’s watched it grow from 11,000 delivered to Bosnia the first year of Operation Christmas Child in 1993 to an expected 11 million, this year, delivered all over the world. Samaritan’s Purse has delivered the gifts to children in 170 countries.
“To make a kid smile and have joy is a wonderful thing,” he told Christianity Today. “For many of them, this is the first gift they have ever received.”
But as much joy as the gifts bring, Graham believes most important is the chance to share God’s love to them through the gospel message.
“Each kid gets a gospel presentation in his or her language,” he said. “We train our team and volunteers in churches how to do the kid’s presentation, so they understand the gospel at their level.”
Over time, Samaritan’s Purse has also seen the Christmas gift program open doors for humanitarian work. When Russia invaded Ukraine in the spring, for example, Samaritan’s Purse had contacts in the country dating back to the delivery of shoeboxes in 1996. That gave them a place to start the conversation about helping those in need.
Graham, who spent 16 years in the US Army, believes it’s fitting that this 200 millionth shoebox should go to a Ukrainian child.
“There's been so much destruction, has been so much hurt and turmoil, especially at the cost of children,” he said. “I spent years in combat and I've seen what happens to children in war and conflict and it's horrible and it's ugly. No child should go through that. There are so many kids that have been either displaced or have lost their loved ones.”
Graham hopes that through shoeboxes, Samaritan’s Purse can ship God’s love and hope to those children.
“Samaritan's Purse goes to the ditches of the world, just like the Good Samaritan,” he said.
He doesn’t believe God would want them to pass these children by without doing something.
“Where other people may not have the resources, the ability to go or the network to go to serve in Ukraine, God has given us that,” Graham said. “I think he wants us to go there and deliver this 200 millionth shoebox.”
Groff, for her part, is thrilled to be part of it all.
“Being able to receive one and then now being able to deliver one to a Ukrainian child that has been impacted—it’s an incredible opportunity and I'm just so thankful.”
Samaritan’s Purse is collecting shoeboxes from November 14 through 21. Locations and information about how to donate are available at samaritanspurse.org.