Liberty student Natasha Ivanova experienced Operation Christmas Child’s impact as a little girl in Belarus
When the Christmas season arrives, many people can recall certain childhood memories that make the holiday so near and dear to their hearts. They often recall receiving a toy they really wanted all year, building snowmen outside in the cold, white snow and sledding with their siblings down steep hills. However, for one Liberty student, Christmas was a time when her entire life changed.
Natasha Ivanova, a senior business major at Liberty University, grew up in Belarus, which is a tiny country on the outskirts of Russia. Her upbringing was much different than most individuals.
When Ivanova was born, her parents learned immediately that there was something wrong with their newborn daughter. The disorder was not anything that would affect her mental capabilities, however. It was a physical disability. Ivanova was born with shorter neck, thus causing her to look different than the average person.
Even though she had this disorder, Ivanova’s parents and two brothers accepted her into their family with open arms, choosing to ignore the fact that she had a disability. However, when Ivanova reached the first grade, her family was forced to realize that she was different than other children.
The Russian government requires children who have disabilities to live in a state-run orphanage for school instead of attending regular pubic school. Because of this, Ivanova’s parents were forced to send her to the orphanage for school during the weekdays in order to provide their daughter with an education.
Ivanova recalled the conditions of the orphanage and wondering why she had to live there just because she was different from other people.
“I remember my father explaining to me that I would have to go live in an orphanage because of my disability,” Ivanova said. “When I first arrived at the school, I was sad and traumatized because I did not want to leave my family. It was my first time away from home.”
During Ivanova’s second Christmas at the orphanage, she received an Operation Christmas Child shoe box from an American family.
Operation Christmas Child is an organization that provides children in need all over the world with a shoebox as a present for them to open Christmas morning, according to samaritanspurse.org.
According to Ivanova, this was the first Christmas present she had received in years.
“In my country, children do not receive a bunch of gifts on Christmas morning like kids in America do because of the financial conditions of the families in
Belarus,” Ivanova said.
Ivanova recalls that her shoebox contained a can of beans, hygiene products, candy and little toys and games that she did not know how to play. However, the most important item in the box was a gospel tract at the bottom. At the time, she did not know how to read English, and she asked her teacher who did know how to read English what the paper said.
“When I asked my teacher what the paper said, she told me it was not important for me to know that,” Ivanova said. “However, I knew that if it came in my box it was definitely important for me to save, so I kept it.”
Ivanova had the opportunity to visit the U.S. the summer before she received her shoebox. She stayed with a woman named Kathy Barrow, who had met her five months before when she visited Ivanova in the orphanage.
Barrow was traveling with the American Belarusian Relief Organization, which is a medical group that selects certain children with medical conditions to be able to come to the U.S. for six weeks in the summer to receive further medical care and experience life outside of their regular environment.
According to Barrow, because Belarus has strict laws that do not allow any Christian material in the country, the purpose of the trip was to provide medical care for children, as well as to smuggle Christian literature into the country.
“My organization’s purpose was to love kids and show them the love of Jesus under the Communist regime that they were forced to live in,” Barrow said.
When Barrow first saw Ivanova at the orphanage, she knew she needed medical care. But she was also affected by more than Ivanova’s medical needs — she was impressed with her loving heart for the kids around her.
“When I was observing the children at the orphanage, I saw these older boys taking the balls we brought for the kids away from the younger kids,” Barrow said. “Each time they would try and take a ball from them, Natasha would go and ask for it back. Her loving and compassionate heart for others, even under the circumstances she was living in, impressed me.”
After Barrow met Ivanova, she never thought she would see her again, but God intervened.
Upon Barrow’s return to the U.S., she pleaded with different churches to take these children in and provide them some relief, not knowing that her home church was actually working with the medical group to try and help Barrow receive her own child.
When Ivanova arrived in the U.S. for the first time, she and Barrow were in awe of the fact that they had met previously.
“When I first arrived in the U.S., I was overwhelmed and scared because I had never been to a different country,” Ivanova said. “When I saw Kathy though, I knew that I was going to be in good hands.”
During Ivanova’s fourth summer in the U.S., she attended a vacation Bible school, where she heard the gospel message.
“When I heard the salvation message that night, I knew that was what was in the tract that I had received in my shoe box a few years before that,” Ivanova said.
According to Barrow, Ivanova came to the U.S. for six consecutive summers, and during her seventh summer, she was able to stay in the country on a student visa. She also had certain medical needs, such as needs for eye and dental care, because of the lack of health care she received in Belarus.
Ivanova has lived in the U.S. for 10 years now, and she has been able to overcome many medical issues, learned how to speak English, spoken at many Operation Christmas Child conferences and will graduate in May.
“The change in my life began when I received my shoe box,” Ivanova said. “I realized that there was hope in the midst of my circumstances. When I look back to those days, I can see that God was working on my behalf to provide me with a future that I had never dreamed of.”
Ivanova has not seen her own family in more than 10 years. However, she considers Barrow to be her other mom who has sacrificed so much for her.
“Life with Natasha has been an amazing journey,” Barrow said. “God has done amazing things in her life, and I am honored to have been a little part of it.”
Many churches and individuals donate packed shoeboxes to Operation Christmas Child, and millions have been helped. For more information on this ministry, visit samaritanspurse.org.