By: Lori Gottula
A few weeks ago, I was in the parking lot of Christ’s Place, the church that I attend in Lincoln, when a young woman raced excitedly to my car, pointed at the back seat, and said with a Russian accent, “Where did you get those?”
I looked in and saw several shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, one of many programs founded and sponsored by the non-profit organization, Samaritan’s Purse. Operation Christmas Child provides shoeboxes to donors who fill them with toys, small clothing items, pajamas, toothbrushes, and just about anything else that will fit in a shoebox. Then Samaritan’s Purse ships them at Christmas time to needy children all around the world.
The woman asked if she could have four of the boxes so that each of her children could fill one. I reached into the back seat, and pulled out four. She clutched them to her chest.
“I’ve been looking all over for these,” she said. “My family came from Ukraine nine years ago. When we lived there, my son received one of these boxes. I can’t tell you what it meant to us.”
I watched with curiosity as her eyes welled with memories. Her voice cracked as she looked at me and said softly, “When we opened the box, love poured out.”
That was all it took. I knew that her story was one I wanted to hear, and to share. Two weeks later, I sat in her kitchen in Lincoln, and drank hot tea from delicate china, while we talked about her life.
When Luda Smyshliaiev, 35, was a young child, she was reared by Christian parents in the Ukrainian republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which had been ruled for decades with the iron fists of the communist party, and the KGB.
“We had no freedoms whatsoever,” Luda said. “The government told us that God was a lie, so we weren’t allowed to worship. The KGB could burst through the door at any time and arrest people for anything. My grandparents were arrested many times for hosting Christian meetings. We had no idea if or when they would come home. No one could speak out against the government, gather in groups, or even listen to Christian music!
“In school, we had to sit with our arms crossed. There was no laughing. No fun. Yet the government told us that the U.S.S.R. was the most powerful nation in the world, and that things were much worse in other countries. We had no way of knowing that this wasn’t true.
“This was during the time of the cold war, and the stores only sold one or two choices of everything. We had one choice of laundry detergent and one choice for soap, maybe two choices of dresses or pants. The government wanted everyone to be the same. But people didn’t want to be the same, so my parents made a good living making clothes for people. They worked hard, and were very respected.”
When Mikhail Gorbachev was elected leader of the Soviet Union (his name was the only one on the ballot), life for everyone in the USSR changed. Even though Gorbachev was an official in the communist party, he basically brought about the dissolution of the party and the USSR and gave basic freedoms back to the people.
“Grocery stores and clothing stores popped up all over then,” Luda said. “People didn’t want hand-made clothing anymore, so my parents went out of business. We were allowed to worship openly then, too, so my parents started a new church in Kershon, our city. They rented a movie theater and started inviting people. Twenty people showed up to the first service. My family and I walked throughout Kershon and handed out pamphlets. The church grew quickly.”
But the culture was about 20 years behind the law. Even though the Ukrainian people were allowed to worship freely, those who were unchurched made fun of those who believed.
“The kids at school were cruel,” Luda said. “Being a Christian wasn’t cool. Even adults considered us ‘stupid,’ for believing such ‘nonsense.’”
Luda sought solace in her church. And that is where she met her future husband, Michael. Both were just 16. They dated throughout school, and both went on to college; she in education, and he in maritime navigation. They married shortly after graduating, and Michael went to work for a store that was much like a United States’ Best Buy. Luda began teaching kindergarten while pursuing her master’s degree in speech pathology. (At the time, her pay as a kindergarten teacher was equivalent to $14 per MONTH in America).
A year after they married, they had their first son, Elijah. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a nine-story building, and like most of the people in the Ukraine, had no hope of ever owning a home or getting ahead.
“Only the wealthy lived in houses,” Luda said. “And only the wealthy got ahead.”
And then the Christmas box changed everything.
When Elijah was just two years old, the family attended a Christmas event at its church. At the front of the room was a large stack of bright, colorful shoeboxes—gifts for the children from people in the United States. The program was Operation Christmas Child. Elijah received one of the shoeboxes and his eyes lit up. He was a toddler, and was fascinated by the bright reds and greens. But it was Luda who was speechless.
“People in my country didn’t give to one another,” Luda said. “The idea of donating to someone less fortunate, or volunteering for a cause was completely foreign to us, so to receive gifts from people who didn’t even know us was breathtaking.”
When they received the box, Luda tried to contain her anticipation, but her chest was bursting. She held the box and ran her fingers along the sides. Then she, Elijah, and Michael drove home. On the way, Luda tried to imagine the mother, father, and children who had packed the box.
“Someone in the United States is thinking of us,” Luda said to Michael and Elijah.
When they got home, Michael held Elijah while Luda opened the box. She lifted the lid carefully, and looked inside. And love poured out. “Everything was so colorful!” Luda said during our interview. “I just couldn’t believe how beautiful everything was! And the contents were so personal. There was a picture of the family, and another picture of the father and his son—a UPS driver in his uniform, standing by his truck with his little boy. It took my breath away.”
There was a deflated soccer ball with a small pump, a toothbrush with toothpaste, little watches for Elijah, and Luda’s favorite thing of all, a bar of soap.
“Our soap in the Ukraine smelled awful,” Luda said. “And there in my hand was this beautiful bar of soap that smelled like flowers. I can still remember it to this day.”
Luda and Michael were overcome by the kindness of complete strangers. Their hearts were filled with joy. And with hope. Two of Luda’s brothers had immigrated to the U.S. at that point, and lived in Lincoln. Michael told Luda that he thought their family would have better opportunities in America, too, so they applied for green cards through a program called Family Connection. And then they started praying. One year later, they were accepted. When they reached Lincoln, they carried three suitcases filled with everything they owned.
They stayed with one of Luda’s brothers for the first three months. Neither Michael nor Luda spoke a word of English then, but both learned quickly. And both landed jobs—she as a nanny/housekeeper during the day, and he as an employee for Lincoln Lighting at night. When Elijah was four, they moved into a duplex in the Air Park section of Lincoln, and started saving for their future.
Today, they own their own semi, and Michael drives cross-country while Luda stays home to take care of their four busy children: Elijah (12), Elizabeth (seven), and four-year-old twins, Rachel and Ryan. They live in their own three-bedroom ranch-style home that is bursting at the seams with activity. All four kids speak English as their first language, but Russian is spoken in their home. All six members of the family are American citizens, but Luda and Michael work hard to teach the kids about their Ukrainian heritage. The couple also make sure that their children give back for the blessings that they have received.
Every two months, the family ships 20 to 30 boxes of gently-used clothing and a variety of other items (including soap) to the Ukraine. The country is currently at war—a war that has ravaged Luda’s homeland—so everything she sends is desperately needed. She spends two months gathering items from Goodwill stores and donors, including her own children. With each shipment, each must pick a toy or clothing item of his or her own to send along for a needy child.
“We are so blessed here in the United States,” Luda said. “And our children need to know what it feels like to sacrifice for others.”
She paused then, and reflected on where she was, and how far her family has come.
“I have lived without freedom,” she said softly. “There is no greater gift than to be free. Nothing can replace it. My family loves this country, and we thank God every day for our lives here. We also thank our soldiers because many died so that we can be free.”
Spoken like a true, very grateful American.
When we wrapped up our interview, I climbed into my car and thanked God for the gift that I had received that day—the gift of Luda. Bright and colorful, she had filled my heart with joy. She had also given me hope; hope that personal relationships like the one she and I had just formed would someday bring peace to our world. Yes, I will cherish the gift of Luda forever, for when I opened this gift, love…. poured…out.
(Writer’s note: During this Christmas season, if you would like to help the needy, please give locally first. You can donate clothing to the Falls City High School closet or to the Brethren Church. For other donations, contact SENCA. If you would like to add to or support Luda’s shipments to Ukraine, please call me at (402) 245-8145.)