Shoeboxes with a Purpose

Have you ever questioned your value? Growing up with absent parents in a poverty-stricken country ruled by the Soviet Union, Irina Creek has felt forgotten and unloved. However, through followers of Christ, God has worked in her life and been faithful to redeem her story. This is a tale of God’s faithfulness through believers and how you can be a part of His saving work this holiday season.  

Growing up alongside her older sister consisted of constant fear due to an alcoholic mother and constantly imprisoned father. After their mother’s final, permanent disappearance, the girls were sent to an orphanage. As an extroverted child desperate for friends, Irina was excited for this change, but her joy soon dwindled due to the harsh conditions of the environment. “I remember feeling very desperate and lonely there because the caregivers were quite harsh. The way they disciplined us was as if we were in a military,” she reflected. “We would have to line up, do formations and march” everywhere together. “Even to the bathroom, everybody would go together, and if you didn’t follow the routine, punishment would be severe.”

Irina recounted a miscommunication where she thought a teacher gave her permission to use the restroom but was actually answering the affirmative to another student’s question. This mistake resulted in her receiving a public beating as a signal to other children to stay in line. 

Though the orphanage was supposed to serve as an escape from the horrors of home, drunken adults followed Irina into her new life. The same punishing teacher indulged in insobriety despite her instructions to watch the children in the evening. Eventually, Irina’s sister was transferred to another orphanage to begin her education. Two years later, Irina was fortunate to be placed in the same orphanage, a rare occurrence: “By God’s grace, we were able to stay together.” 

The leadership at the new orphanage was a drastic change from the first, distinctly lacking any physical or verbal abuse. Instead, they encouraged the children to think for themselves. “My teacher would say: if you want to go do that thing that is wrong, go for it. It’s your life, and you need to realize that you’re in control of your decisions and the consequences.” This teaching method worked for Irina, instilling self-discipline and causing her to pause, evaluate the situation and then walk away. 

Beginning sixth grade, Irina was discouraged seeing the older girls who graduated fall into the same cycles as their parents. To encourage her, Irina’s sister shared stories about America being the land of opportunity where you could pursue any career instead of only having three choices. The stories seemed so distant that it wasn’t until Operation Christmas Child Shoebox entered the orphanage that she realized God had a plan for her beyond struggle and heartache. 

When OCC arrived, the children were told “they were going to receive a special shoebox gift filled with items to keep” and they’d also receive an even greater gift. “I thought, what could be greater than that? That shoebox had more than I ever owned in my whole life.” Irina was shocked by the generosity of a stranger and interested to learn it was the American church that sponsored the gifts. 

Various treasures inside provided laughter, such as slinkies, hair clips, toothpaste and writing materials. However, the most meaningful prizes inside the boxes were letters and pictures from the senders. “God made us people of relationships,” Irina said when explaining the significance of the letters. “The most valuable thing we have is a relationship: first with our Creator and second with one another.” The natural human desire for connection made the letters and photos precious items.    

The letters were translated to reveal messages expressing love and prayer for the children, which touched them deeply. Those lucky enough to have received one pinned it near their beds or carried it within their pockets.

The opportunity to own something also allowed the children to have the pleasure of trading or giving gifts. They wanted to give unto others as they had been given, opening the doorway to hear about Christ’s love. 

Irina used the example of Moses’s staff transforming to describe how praying over boxes transforms them into devices God can use for His glory. Soon after receiving a box, Irina accepted Christ into her heart. God’s plan did not stop there because in 2002, at ages twelve and fourteen, both sisters were adopted together by a couple in Florence, South Carolina, who sacrificed their early retirement for God’s plan. In a short time, Irina experienced both physical and spiritual adoption. 

A wife and mother, she serves as a speaker for OCC, sharing what God has done in her life through Christians who were willing to follow His direction. She now answers the question of value by saying she sees herself as “a royal child of God” and “as someone precious.”

For Irina, an OCC shoebox was the gift that opened the door to hear about Christ; this season, you can also be a part of this ministry. Find a local church putting together shoeboxes or get a group of friends and do it yourself. If nothing else, I highly encourage you to take some time to make a few cards for the ministry. This is such an easy way to impact a life for the kingdom.