COLUMBIA — In a Russian orphanage, Vladimir Foreman had very little he could call his own. He shared his bath towel with 20 other children, he slept in a communal bedroom, and his pens and pencils were collected at the end of each school day. He received his first-ever Christmas presents at age 9.
One was a shoebox of gifts from Operation Christmas Child, a charity effort sponsored by the evangelical Christian organization Samaritan’s Purse.
Information on Operation Christmas Child is available at samaritanspurse.org.
The organization collects donated boxes from Nov. 18 to 25.
As he spoke at The Crossing Church on Saturday morning, Foreman, 23, related the impact that the shoebox and Samaritan's Purse have had on his life. From his time in the orphanage to his later adoption in America, he said, the box has been a source of hope and a tool for understanding in his life.
Foreman and his two biological sisters — Tanya, 25, and Klava, 22 — spent their early years being shuffled among a number of state-run orphanages in Pskov Oblast, the westernmost region of Russia.
Each one, he said, was overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded. In the early 1990s, as the fledgling Yeltsin administration struggled to transition away from a Communist government, few resources were left for children like Vladimir and his sisters.
The three siblings often found themselves separated into different groups within their orphanages, unable to interact or communicate.
"I knew that I had sisters, but I could never see them or talk to them," Foreman said. "As time went on, things felt more and more hopeless. By the time I was 9 years old, I was very depressed. I remember feeling like I had no one who cared about me."
Foreman vividly recalls the day that he received the shoebox.
"I remember going into my classroom, not expecting anything to be different, when I heard laughter and shouting coming from inside the room. When I walked in, I saw all the other kids opening these boxes, exchanging gifts, and my teacher pointed to my desk."
On the desk sat a plain shoebox wrapped in tape and filled with gifts. Foreman said he was overcome with emotion as he opened it.
"I had never gotten a gift before, it was so unusual. I was like, 'Somebody must really love me,'" Foreman said.
Foreman said he remembers his three favorite things in the box clearly: a washcloth of his own, a blank notebook, and a tube of Spongebob Squarepants toothpaste.
"It was bubble-gum flavored, so I ate the whole tube," he confessed, laughing. "I didn’t know it wasn’t candy."
Foreman described the impact of the gift as enormous and said that it ignited a sense of hope inside him that persisted throughout his remaining years at the orphanage.
"Things didn't magically get perfect and better," he said. "But I had that hope, and I held onto it."
Foreman was able to use his notebook to exchange letters with his sisters. At 13, he received the news that Klava had been chosen to visit an American couple who hoped to adopt her.
Doug and Becky Foreman eventually adopted all three siblings and brought them to Maple Lake, Minn., where they were home-schooled and gradually learned to speak English. Vladimir Foreman credits his adoptive parents with introducing him to Christianity, another powerful force in his life.
"My dad told me about God and Jesus, about how Jesus died on the cross as a gift, as a sacrifice. That day, I remember making a clear connection between that story and the shoebox. It was a gift from someone that I didn't know, but who loved me and wanted what was best for me," he said. "That was the day I really found my faith."
At 16, Vladimir Foreman began to share his life story with evangelical churches in Minnesota. This led to invitations to speak in other regions of the country, including Kansas, California and Missouri.
"I've always hated the idea of public speaking, but I knew that this was something that God had done in my life and I needed to share. Honestly, I feel like God talks and I just stand there," he said.
Joe Christian, an organizer for Operation Christmas Child in the lower Midwest, said that he hopes Vladimir Foreman's story will inspire members of the Columbia community to become involved in the effort themselves.
"We've given boxes to 100 million children so far, which is incredible, but there is still a tremendous need," Christian said.
Foreman, who now works as a diesel mechanic, hopes to continue sharing his story with church communities all over the country. He said that he and his family still participate in Operation Christmas Child each year, packing shoe boxes with gifts in the hope that it will have the same impact on children in other countries.
"Last year we said we were going to pack 25 shoe boxes, and we ended up packing 30," he said. "This year we’re shooting for 50."
Supervising editor is Stephanie Ebbs.