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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
Naomi Gratehouse poses as a present at the Operation Christmas Child event in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017. Operation Christmas Child collects and delivers gift-filled shoeboxes to children in need.

MURRAY — Irina Creek was one of more than 100 children in a Russian orphanage when she remembers being shuffled into a large room and given a shoebox filled with gifts.

Little did she know how that box would change her life.

"It was the first time any of us received anything like this," she said. Creek was 10 years old at the time, but she remembers it "like it was yesterday."

Along with the gifts, provided by Operation Christmas Child, the children were introduced to Christianity and told they could pray to God and have their burdens lifted.

Creek did exactly that, asking that she and her older sister be adopted by a Christian family and one in America.

"I believe God was listening," she said. A couple years later, she and her sister found themselves in a family in South Carolina, where they "got to know God even better."

Creek was able to return to the orphanage last year and while the country no longer accepts missionaries and/or Christian donations, as a citizen of Russia, she was able to speak with the children, as well as rebuild their playground, renovate the dilapidated floor and paint the facility.

"Our God is a god of miracles and I wanted them to see that," Creek said. "The hope that I received that day (in 2000) is the hope that keeps me going."

Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan's Purse, a non-denominational evangelical Christian international relief organization based in North Carolina. Last year, it sent more than 11.5 million shoeboxes (over 9 million originating in the United States) to needy children in 120 countries.

"Operation Christmas Child is a way communities can share God's love with children all over the world in desperate situations," said Alison Long, a northern Utah area coordinator with the project. "It's a tangible expression of God's love to those children."

Anyone, she said, "from any church group, community group, Scouting, business or other organization" can participate and materials can be found online at www.SamaritansPurse.org/OCC.

Boxes will be collected at a number of locations throughout Utah, and specifically at the Calvary Baptist Church, 460 W. Century Drive, Nov. 13 through Nov. 20.

A child born to alcoholic and drug addicted parents, Creek landed in an orphanage at a young age and endured a lot in those early years. Though the government in the former Soviet Union provided for the education and health of the orphaned children, other items, including basic necessities, were quite limited.

The shoeboxes they received that day, she said, not only helped to meet those needs, but enlightened all of them, giving them an idea of the good around them.

Of everything she received, her favorite was a pencil sharpener in the shape of a dinosaur.

"I didn't even have pencils, but I thought, 'How creative those Americans are to make such a normal item into a toy,'" Creek said.

The faith in God that came from those simple gifts, she said, resulted in a lifelong string of miracles that continue to bless her own and other's lives.

"I've had some amazing opportunities in my life, but I would give them all up to have this relationship with God," Creek said, adding that no matter a person's stance on God, "we can all agree that helping needy children is all of our responsibility."

"There are countries full of children in need and we all have something to give," she said.

"I've wanted to go abroad and work with people in other countries," said Salt Lake City resident Trish Christopulos. She said filling boxes each year allows her to do that from home.

"For so many, this will be the only thing they will get and it opens the door to God and Jesus Christ," she said.

Similarly, Ramona Franck, of Murray, loves to include handmade gifts in boxes for children each year.

"It lets them know somebody loves them," she said. "It's amazing how each box can impact a child. Imagining what it must be like for them is almost a Christmas gift for yourself."

Operation Christmas Child aims to collect 25,000 shoeboxes filled with items for children from Utahns all over the state this year. Along with the gifts for various age groups, donors are encouraged to send a photo of themselves and write a card to the recipient(s) of their boxes, among other intricacies.

More details, as well as an opportunity to take part in a fundraising partnership for the Nov. 17 Utah Grizzlies game, are available online, at www.SamaritansPurse.org or the Operation Christmas Child-Northern Utah page on Facebook.

The organization, which has only grown since 1993, also offers additional opportunities for its child recipients to come to know Jesus Christ and how he can work in their lives.

"When something is in the hands of God, it is a mighty tool," Creek said.