Growing up the daughter of a Christian minister in Ukraine who struggled to find work, Nadia Karnatova and her eight siblings did not have even the most simple possessions. They had basically no toys, and all nine shared one toothbrush. But one simple gift from Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child made all the difference.
When Karnatova was 9, she went to an OCC party at a neighborhood church in Ukraine.
“We were excited because we knew they were going to talk about God and give us candy,” she said.
What she did not know was that she was going to receive a shoebox full of gifts.
“In my shoebox I received a Barbie doll with pink shoes, and I had wanted a Barbie doll for a while because a girl in my neighborhood had one,” she said Friday. “It was something I thought I would never have, and it’s the only thing I remember that was in my shoebox. To me it felt like the big birthday party I never had. It was very exciting for all of us. That spoke to me and made me feel very special.”
She was aware of what many kids in the United States had, Karnatova said, because she had seen American television programs. But they seemed like a dream, and she had resigned herself to a life with few material possessions.
“We never had proper clothes, especially in the winter,” she said as she told a story of wearing tennis shoes in the winter that would be soaking wet by the time she arrived at school. “But we were thankful for everything. Our parents taught us to be thankful for what we had, and not worry about what we didn’t have.”
Karnatova’s father was what she called an “underground minister.” She said that until the Soviet Union collapsed around 1993, people in Ukraine were not allowed to talk about God or Christianity. She said that changed with the Soviet Union’s collapse, but Christianity was still something that few people knew or talked about. She said that only about half the kids at the OCC party had ever heard of God, and that it was because of those reasons that her father struggled to keep a job as a minister.
One night when she was young, Karnatova recalled, she was at an apartment where Christianity was being discussed. She said kids were running all around the place when there was a knock at the door. Parents started hiding their children. When someone answered door, policemen were waiting.
She said several adults were jailed.
But not long thereafter, the Soviet Union collapsed, and a couple years later she received her OCC Barbie doll.
“I was excited. It just kind of took me away from the dark reality of the hard struggles we were going through,” Karnatova said. “It made me feel like a child. It made me feel special because it had been given freely.”
It was also a blessing to her parents.
“It really gave my Mom hope to keep fighting and not give up because God provided things for her children that she could not,” Karnatova said.
In 2000, Karnatova and her family moved to the United States through an American refugee program. She was 14 and her mother gave her Barbie doll to her best friend’s daughter. Karnatova said the doll has since been passed down to other children.
“It’s still out there,” she said. “A simple gift impacted a lot of girls. It was well loved.”
Today, Karnatova lives in Columbus. She has three children and is a wedding photographer. She also works as what OCC calls a “full-circle speaker,” meaning she is someone who received an OCC shoebox as a child and now travels the country telling others how that gift impacted her life.
Friday evening, Karnatova was scheduled to tell her story at the First United Methodist Church in Hillsboro, which will serve as the central drop-off location for Operation Christmas Child’s South Central Ohio Area that includes Highland, Adams, Brown, Clinton and Fayette counties.
Barb Lanctot, an area OCC coordinator, said the goal is to collect 17,000 shoeboxes from the area this year. She said that last year the area supplied just under 15,000 shoeboxes.
She said that since 1993, OCC has delivered 157 million shoeboxes to children around the globe.
“This program is an easy way for parents to teach children what it means to give to someone,” Lanctot said. “It’s an easy way to impact the life of a child. It’s just an easy way to bring joy to a child’s life. It’s a tangible way of showing God’s love for them. Here, someone receiving a shoebox full of gifts might say, ‘Is this all we get?’ In other places they say, ‘We get all of this?’”
National OCC Collection Week is Nov. 13-20. Other area drop-off sites, according to Lanctot, include the First Baptist Church in Greenfield, Sardinia Church of Christ, Fayette Bible Church in Washington C.H., West Union Church of Christ in Christian Union, Calvary Baptist Church in Wilmington and Blanchester Church of Christ.
Any churches or other groups in the area wanting more information should call Lanctot at 937-218-1964.
These days Karnatova and her children wrap shoeboxes for other children around the world each year. Her parents have sent some, too.
“It’s pretty special,” Karnatova said. Of life in the United States, Karnatova said, “It’s like a God moment every day. Where I lived, I never thought it would be like that. I was resigned to having a life of very little. I thought America was always like heaven. You almost don’t believe it’s real. Every moment here, I cherish.”
Karnatova said that like everyone else, she sometimes starts feeling a little down. But she has a cure for that.
“Stop focusing on what you don’t have and serve somebody,” Karnatova said. “It’s such a joy to serve another person.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.