How a Christmas shoebox changed a life |

How a Christmas shoebox changed a life

Ryan Summerlin
Vladimir Prokhnevskiy, born and raised in Ukraine, visited The Orchard in Carbondale Sunday morning to recount the impact a gift from Operation Christmas Child had on him during his impoverished childhood.
Ryan Summerlin / Post Independent |

The Roaring Fork Valley has been giving to Operation Christmas Child for decades. But on Sunday, The Orchard’s congregation learned firsthand about the important impact the program can make.

Vladimir Prokhnevskiy grew up in harsh, impoverished conditions in Kiev, Ukraine, through the final years of the Soviet Union.

“My father was an underground minister in Kiev. He pastored an unregistered church at the time, and in the Soviet Union, he was constantly persecuted by the state,” he told the Carbondale congregation, which annually hosts a site for gift packing. “It didn’t matter where we went, we were always persecuted and hated.”

“My dad, each time he was captured it affected his pay drastically. It got to the point where we had to share toothbrushes. That was kind of gross, but that was the reality,” Prokhnevskiy said.

Prokhnevskiy and his siblings were raised eating mainly rice and potatoes. “I was vegetarian before I knew that was a thing,” he said.

The family of nine lived in a small apartment with one tub that was usually filled with clothes his mother was constantly washing, to the point that her hands would crack and bleed. She would stay up at night making sure the children had clean socks and underwear.

Prokhnevskiy and his siblings took turns playing outside because they had to share shoes. And they didn’t have any toys, so he would pretend the shoes were cars. They would make yo-yos out of Coca-Cola bottle caps.

Then one day Operation Christmas Child came to their part of the city. Operation Christmas Child is a project launched in 1993 by Samaritan’s Purse, an international evangelical Christian relief organization. Since then the project has gone to more than 150 countries and delivered more than 145 million shoeboxes stuffed with gifts for children in need.

In Kiev, a big event was held for arrival of the shoeboxes, a kind of thing that young Prokhnevskiy had never seen.

“I come from a culture where no one smiles. They don’t encourage emotion,” he said. “This is a Russian smile right here,” he said to the congregation, and he draw laughter with his vacant stare.

But when the shoebox gifts came, it was “like a big birthday party for everybody,” he said. “The Americans did such a wonderful job of smiling and making us feel welcome and loved. I remember being so happy. They would pass snacks around, and there were juices. And in the end they presented the gospel to us.”

From his box, which actually came from someone in Colorado, Prokhnevskiy got lots of new gifts, including his own toothbrush. And he marveled over a new bar of soap. “It was white. It was beautiful. It smelled great. I didn’t want to use it. I just wanted to put it on the shelf and look at it.”

Prokhnevskiy said his most memorable gift was dental floss, because at first, he didn’t understand what it was. “I thought it was candy. I remember licking it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is some weird candy.’

“In my culture, there’s always strings attached to gifts. When someone gives you a gift, they expect something in return,” he said. “But here someone took their time, took their money and decided to put the shoebox together … a family invested into me.” Prokhnevskiy said that this simple gift was a powerful show of unconditional love.

He now lives in North Carolina and does web design for the famous evangelist Billy Graham’s organization. He also has two children of his own and says he now can’t imagine what it was like for his parents to raise children with such meager means.

“Don’t worry about how this box is going to work out,” he told the congregation. “Because you pray over it, and when you open it something happens. When kids play with those toys, those toys will minister to them. If God can use people, he can use toys. When we show love to people, we show God to people. God is love.”

Last year the program sent more than 11 million shoeboxes to children in need, and this year’s goal is 12 million. About 1,000 of those came from the Roaring Fork Valley last year.

The national collection week for Operation Christmas Child runs from Nov. 13-20, and drop off locations will be across the Roaring Fork Valley. If you want more information on how to get involved call 303-745-9179 or go to

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