Editor’s note — this is part two of a two-part series. Part one was published in Friday’s edition of the Daily Times.
One shoe box was filled with more than just gifts: It offered hope. It had a distinct feeling, the very essence that had eluded an innocent 9-year-old-girl.
However, with one Barbie doll decked out in a pink dress and long blonde hair, that poor child became the cool child, that shy child became the confident child — that 9-year-old girl who was embarrassed to even be a child, suddenly knew what it was like to live a normal childhood.
Nadia Karnatova grew up Kiev, Ukraine. She often described her childhood as a colorless, gray cloud. However, her outlook changed once she received her first shoe box.
Then, a few years later, a 14-year-old Karnatova was about to witness another life-altering change.
Thanks to a Christian refugee program, Karnatova, her parents and her eight siblings moved to America, to a rented house in Tennessee.
“We all had extra clothes. The refrigerator was filled with food. We were in Heaven. We were so thankful,” Karnatova said.
The next day, Karnatova and her family experienced Wal-Mart for the first time.
“Till this day, I love going to a Wal-Mart,” Karnatova said. “My friends think I’m funny. When they brought us to Wal-Mart, they told all of us kids, ‘You can have any shoes you want; you can have any backpack you want,’” Karnatova said.
Karnatova felt like a kid in a candy store — because essentially, she was.
“We were running around. We had never been shopping before. We had never went shopping for clothes,” Karnatova said. “I felt uncomfortable telling them that I want ‘those shoes,’ because they were going to spend money on me. When you’re poor, you’re used to getting the cheapest and now we were allowed to get what we wanted. These people took care of us.
“Till this day, we’re all thankful for God taking care of us.”
When Karnatova first entered Wal-Mart, she couldn’t comprehend the magnitude. Then, she noticed two American children racing past her and she quickly realized she was special too.
“‘Oh my gosh, there are American kids.’ I just felt so special that I was here in America,” Karnatova said.
At 14 years old, Karnatova began high school in America without speaking English. She spent the vast majority of her teenage years learning the English language. Now, Karnatova is a motivational speaker for Samaritan’s Purse.
However, the transition wasn’t seamless. In fact, Karnatova use to hide in the women’s restroom during high school. She was embarrassed by her accent, she was afraid to speak to anyone.
“I used to separate myself from everybody,” Karnatova said. “I didn’t want nobody to talk to me because I was so scared.”
Now, Karnatova travels around the country, telling her story and motivating individuals to fill shoe boxes.
“God just started using me this way and now every time I speak on stage, I’m just like, ‘How did that happen? How did I end up here?’ God can use anyone,” Karnatova said.”
Also, aside from speaking, Karnatova has three children who help her fill shoe boxes. It’s a blessing that she doesn’t take lightly.
“This is something I never imagined doing with my kids,” Karnatova said. “I never imagined being on the giving side. I always thought that all my life I would be on the receiving side. God finally put me and my family on the giving side. It just feels so special. I always encourage my kids to give. I always encourage my kids to share their toys, give to others.”
Karnatova also watched her parents pack their first shoe boxes, which was overwhelming for her.
“Other people always took care of my parents and now they were able to pack a shoe box and give back,” Karnatova said. “I remember my mom and my dad, they went to a dollar store and they went shopping, and they bought all these toys. They brought them home and my mom laid all the stuff they bought on the kitchen table. She was so excited and even my dad. He was just sitting there smiling. My mom was asking me, ‘Nadia, what do you think about this toy? What do you think about that?’ She was so excited.
“I remember sitting there watching them. I wanted to breakdown in tears. I felt such God’s presence in that room, it was really special.”
Karnatova’s story has touched many communities throughout the country, including southeast Ohio. Samaritan’s Purse, the creator of Operation Christmas Child, has a local team in Scioto County.
That team first witnessed Karnatova’s story in a Global Connect Conference in Orlando, Florida. One of those members who made the trip to her Karnatova was Gaylene St. Leger Cox.
She has since heard Karnatova speak at different churches in southeast, Ohio, but the feeling she has every time she hears the story is breath taking.
“It makes me more thankful to be on this side of the box, and just pack more and more shoe boxes, because as Nadia said, they are an answer to a mother’s prayer,” St. Leger Cox said. “Hearing her story and knowing a shoe box can touch a life so intensely, it makes you want to do more and more. I personally have a big place in my heart for the Ukraine and for recipients in eastern Europe.
“The first year I ever packed shoe boxes, I packed three. I now pack 400 shoe boxes a year and I now help with Shawnee’s packing party, and two other packing parties.”
St. Leger Cox continues to be moved to give. She often finds herself picking up shoe box items when she’s out shopping and every time she hears a heart-wrenching story, it motivates her to continue to help the less fortunate.
“If you came to our house, the living room, the garage, the dinning room, the basement, it truly is carpeted with shoe box items,” St. Leger Cox said. “There is not a day that I shop that I do not buy items for shoe boxes, no matter where I am. That little tangible gift is the first vehicle before a child opens their hearts and then learns about Jesus’ love for them.”
Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1927, or on Twitter @crslone.