Woman who grew up in a small Moldova village shares her experience with Operation Christmas Child
Olesea Makarets, who grew up in a small village in Moldova in the 1990s, received a shoebox that changed her life when she was 5 years old in 1997.
“I received a shoebox in 1997 when I was 5 years old, and receiving that shoebox has left such a great memory because it was such a drastic change. I still remember that day — it felt like it was the happiest day,” Makarets said. “We were told by our Sunday school teacher that we’re going to get something special from another girl or boy just like us from far away. The night before, I just couldn’t wait anymore. I thought that I should just go to sleep instead of being anxious and wait, so I went to bed extra early.”
That shoebox gift, which changed her opinion not only on feeling important in the world, but also on fostering her faith at such a young age, came from Operation Christmas Child.
The Samaritan’s Purse project, Operation Christmas Child, has been gifting shoeboxes filled with gifts to children around the world since 1993. Celebrating 30 years, “The project has collected and delivered more than 209 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 170 countries and territories. In 2023, Operation Christmas Child hopes to collect enough shoebox gifts to reach another 11 million children,” according to the Samaritan’s Purse website.
Makarets visited the Santa Clarita Valley last weekend to spread awareness of Operation Christmas Child, and share her experiences and how it changed things for her as a child.
“I was born and raised in a small village in Moldova and lived in the village. You really had to be self-sustaining, and you couldn’t depend on any government help — you had to grow your own crops to raise your own livestock,” she said during a Samaritan’s Purse project leadership workshop held at Valencia Hills Community Church.
Makarets discussed the childhood that she and her six siblings endured.
“As young kids, we had to wake up really early before school to feed the animals. There were no cars. The streets were just dark, and you couldn’t really do anything when it was dark, so it was a very life-self-sustaining lifestyle,” Makarets said. “Even though my parents worked really hard to provide food on our table, we only had enough for life’s essential items.”
Regardless of the lack of material items in Makarets’ early life, she always valued Christmas with her family, despite its simplicity.
“Christmas was a special time for us as well because our Christmas gifts would actually just be a little bag of candies, and if we were lucky enough, we would have an orange in there, or a large chocolate bar,” Makarets said. “We would cut the chocolate bar into nine small pieces to make sure everyone in the family had a little piece to try. Or, if it was an orange, we would peel that orange to make sure everyone had a slice of an orange.”
A gift as plain as an orange, which many often take for granted, taught Makarets to be resourceful and appreciative of the little things.
“Sometimes there would be two or three oranges, but not always. We saved the orange peels, dried them up on the table and later put them in hot water.”
The political and religious climate for Makarets was not any better, as she often found opposition in the way she expressed herself.
“Moldova was part of the Soviet Union before the Soviet Union fell apart, and was a very communist country. I was born after the Soviet Union fell apart by two years, but officials [were not religious] and didn’t change their mindset over just one night,” Makarets said. “A lot of times, children that had Christian parents still were mistreated. We also didn’t have as many privileges in school. A lot of times, we were bullied because we’re Christian and we were laughed at by other children.”
Although times have now changed for the better, and the acceptance of Christian practices has progressed in Moldova, Makarets still credits her move to America as a positive, and necessary, change.
Makarets’ family emigrated as refugees in 2003, and instantly noticed the difference in religious expression:
“There’s a lot more religious freedom here — you have a church almost at every single corner, and you’re not being laughed at or put down just because you’re a believer.”
Working as a nurse in the state of Washington with her husband and two children, Makarets has begun instilling the giving traditions, reflecting on the shoebox she received when she was nearly her oldest child’s age.
Makarets’ excitement still resonates with her as she reflects on the day she received her gift from the church.
“I kept tossing and turning and couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited. As soon as I woke up, I was ready to run outside the door — it was the sunniest and happiest day of my life. You could see children from all sides of the village running towards the church because something happier and exciting was happening,” Makarets said. “Seeing all those shoeboxes, I couldn’t take my eyes off of them and enjoyed listening to the stories of the people that came on the stage.”
Each of Makarets’ siblings received a box. There were many essentials in the boxes, including shampoo bottles, bath sponges, toothpaste and school supplies, but one thing in particular stood out to her.
“The item that stood out to me the most [made me] start jumping with joy, squealing and running around and showing everyone what I got. The markers were really special to me,” Makarets said. “They were used for years and years until they were dry. But to make them write a little better, we would dip them in water to get the tip wet, and then it would get a little extra color then dip it in water again.”
Receiving this substantial gift made Makarets reinstill her faith in the religion, even as a little girl. The shoebox became the visual reminder.
“I realized that I was special to Jesus, that he knows the desires of my heart, and he sent that to me. It started a personal relationship with the Lord. Receiving the shoebox reassured me and gave me hope. It solidified my faith with Jesus as much as it could for a 5-year-old girl,” Makarets said.
While the goal of Operation Christmas Child is to donate to each child once in their lifetime, ensuring that as many children as possible in the world experience joy, as Makarets did, is the project’s main incentive.
“Now being on both sides — being on the receiving and giving side — I can tell you for sure it’s such a bigger blessing to be able to bless other children like that and to be able to give back and know how that child feels,” Makarets said.
Makarets has been grateful for her experiences through Operation Christmas Child, and recognizes the importance of continuing to be a part of something substantial.
“I want to personally thank this organization for being so passionate, and for encouraging [people] to pack a shoebox this year,” Makarets said. “It’s a part of my Christmas tradition now. It’s a really fun way to bless other children around the world. You don’t want this just to be another ordinary gift for that child, but for that gift to make a difference. I pray for that shoebox to land into the right hands.”
The Samaritan’s Purse will collect donations at more than 4,500 locations throughout the nation during the week of Nov. 13-20. If you would like to build your own shoebox, visit tinyurl.com/2p82wh9s.