By Rich Brown
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Small things make a big difference, said Elena Hagemeier. If anyone should know, it's this Ozark Christian College sophomore.
Take a shoe box, for example. Something this diminutive and unpretentious is not likely to draw much attention. Unless it's a shoe box from Operation Christmas Child.
Hagemeier, who was raised in Russian orphanage homes for four years, has found out first-hand the huge impact from such a small box -- not only on her life, but also the lives of others.
It was about a decade ago that colorful red and green shoe boxes, courtesy of the worldwide Christian outreach Samaritan's Purse, arrived at an orphanage home where she and her younger sister were living.
The girls were not used to receiving any gifts, let alone Christmas presents. But these were gifts with more than one purpose in mind. They were not only meant to bring a little Christmas cheer to the orphans' lives, but also to introduce them to the reason for the season in celebrating the birth of Christ.
Just like the ones Hagemeier and her sister received, the shoe boxes, filled with small toys, hygiene items and school supplies, are packed each Christmas season by individuals, civic groups, schools and businesses that send them to needy children around the world. Such boxes numbered around 8.7 million last year alone.
"I had never had anything like this before," said Hagemeier, who came to the United States eight years ago when she was 12 after being adopted by former Ozark Christian College students Kris and Sarah Hagemeier. "Here was this box wrapped in Christmas paper, and when I opened it and saw all these things, it was like 'wow.'"
There was one particular item in the box that may have had a bigger effect on Hagemeier than any other. It was a booklet titled "The Greatest Gift of All," which told the life of Christ and how he died on the cross.
"I was not a Christian then, so when I read that, I thought it was a fairy tale at first, but I still hoped it was true," she said. "From reading that booklet, I started praying to this God I did not know. I felt there was nowhere else to turn."
Hagemeier said it was not unusual for many of the girls who turned 18 and left the orphanage to go into prostitution, since there was little hope of achieving much at that stage in life. But after reading the Samaritan's Purse booklet, Hagemeier said she found hope.
Full of hope, she prayed for God to bring her an American family to adopt her and her sister.
Eventually, Kris Hagemeier, then a youth minister and now an associate minister at Wentzville (Mo.) Christian Church, and his wife adopted the girls, who went on to turn their lives around with Christian parents showing them the way.
For two girls, who had been raised by an abusive Russian father, the adoption was nothing short of a Godsend.
"Thanks to Operation Christmas Child showing me who God is through that shoe box, and thanks to my American dad who showed me what a good father figure is like, I can see that God is my heavenly father," said Hagemeier, who was baptized and began attending Christian youth meetings after being brought to America.
Even though Hagemeier and her sister had been introduced to the Samaritan's Purse shoe boxes as recipients, they viewed them with a different perspective while living in Wentzville, a suburb of St. Louis.
"We started packing the boxes to send overseas with our parents when I was in sixth grade, and we have been doing it ever since," she said.
Last year Samaritan's Purse asked Hagemeier to go on a mission trip to Uganda and deliver the shoe boxes herself. She carried boxes to schools, churches and even orphanages.
Needless to say, the latter was the toughest.
"I told my leaders ahead of time that I would probably cry, because of what I had gone through," she said. "I tried to keep as busy as I could, because I was afraid that if I was off by myself for just a minute, something would click and I would start crying. Then I saw a member of our team holding a little boy in her arms. This kid would not let go of her and was clutching an unopened shoe box in his arms.
"When I saw that, I said 'wow,' that was me when I was a kid. All I wanted was love. I did not have anyone at the orphanage to show me that, but the shoe box did."
From receiving to giving, Hagemeier's life has come full circle with Operation Christmas Child. Next week she will add another feather to her Samaritan's Purse hat as she directs the collection and packing process of shoe boxes on the Ozark Christian campus.
Hagemeier has also been called upon by Samaritan's Purse as an Operation Christmas Child spokesperson to spread the word about how a small shoe box can make a big difference in a child's life. She has had to take time away from her studies to travel around Missouri and to other states as part of the task.
As far as future plans, Hagemeier said she has felt God's call in her life to be a missionary. What better way to start than with Operation Christmas Child?
Want to help?
More information about this worldwide Christmas ministry may be found at www.samaritanspurse.org.
Address correspondence to Rich Brown, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, MO 64802, or email email@example.com.