CHESTERTOWN - A shoebox changed Livia Satterfield's life.
Satterfield, who received the box in a Romanian orphanage, told her story Friday night at Chestertown Baptist Church. The presentation was part of a promotion for Operation Christmas Child, a project that distributes shoeboxes filled with simple gifts to children around the world.
"Mom put me in an orphanage at 2 years old," she began. She described a Romania where young children are put out to beg, and beaten if they return home with too little to show for their time on the street. She escaped that life but what she endured for the 10 years she spent as an orphan was nearly as bad.
The orphans worked hard cleaning to get their meals, she said. They would be called out and embarrassed for mistakes. Sometimes they had only moldy bread to eat, and hygiene was minimal. Five to 10 children would bathe in the same water, using the same towel. It was common for children to leave dinner early for a chance to be near the front of the line for clean bath water. "Showers" were water poured out of buckets. Toothbrushes were shared.
Wearing the same clothes for a week was also common, and often the clothes fit poorly she recalled one painfully too-tight pair of overalls she had to wear. Medical care was also doled out almost at random. Sometimes it was worse than that: children might be forced to fight each other to entertain the others. And the staff routinely stole any gifts the children might receive to give to their own families, or to sell.
It's not surprising that Satterfield described herself and all her companions as starved for attention. Her own special dream was to have hair clips an impossibility, since the children's hair was kept short to discourage lice.
Then Operation Christmas Child came to the orphanage, with a group of American missionaries to distribute the boxes. Satterfield said she and the other orphans had the image of Americans as rich and very generous, so the arrival of the group was an occasion of high excitement. She described running to the orphanage gates to wait for them, pushing to the front of the crowd of hundreds of children and picking out one of the 20 Americans as "mine." The one she picked out pushing away other kids, sitting on her lap, following her everywhere was Connie Satterfield.
The missionaries told the children the Gospel story, which was new to most of them. Livia was thrilled at the idea that someone loved her. "There was hope out there for me," she said. Then they opened the gift boxes they'd been brought and she found hers had a set of hair clips. "I put them all in my hair," she said. "Connie tried to stop me." She also got her own toothbrush the first she'd ever had and her own bar of soap "I'll be clean for a month," she remembered saying to herself.
The gifts affected the whole orphanage, she said. The children became closer to one another, sharing good things for the first time. Her life improved further when she was transferred to a Christian orphanage, where she "learned more about God." But the real joy came when Connie Satterfield adopted her and brought her to America. She was one of the last orphans to leave Romania, which shortly afterward put restrictions on foreign adoptions.
Now, after more than a decade in her new country, Satterfield is a college student at Clayton State University, near Atlanta, Ga., where her adoptive family lives. She is majoring in business, with a marketing minor. As a way to repay some of the kindness she experienced, she is traveling and speaking on behalf of the program that changed her own life. Her itinerary included churches in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, before returning to school.
The Operation Christmas Child boxes are assembled by individual donors, who choose the gifts they will include. Satterfield told the audience not to worry about their choices "It's all perfect, because they have nothing." She told examples of children receiving items they'd always wanted, such as the hair clips she got in her box. Also good are plush toy animals, pencils and other school supplies, or hygiene items. Donors are asked to indicate whether the gift box is for a boy or a girl.
She suggested that donors put a short letter to the children, or include pictures of themselves. "You're their family," she said. The children may write back if the donors include a return address.
Satterfield said she had returned to Romania and gotten back in touch with her mother, who also has a son a few years older. "We're friends," she said. She said she had also met some of the other children from her orphanage. "The missionaries kept us in touch," she said.
Operation Christmas Child offers pre-made boxes, or donors can use an ordinary shoebox. Some donors use a clear plastic box, which is often prized in the communities abroad. Kathe Wagner, of the Central Delmar area team, said the plastic boxes can be used as molds for bricks, an important use in many poor communities.
Operation Christmas Child is a program of Samaritan's Purse, a faith-based organization begun by Billy Graham and now headed by his son Franklin. The program follows up the boxes by offering programs of Christian education, designed to bring the children into their church community.
Since its origins in 1993, Operation Christmas Child has distributed a total of more than 93 million boxes, and expects to pass the 100 million mark this year. That's quite a climb from the 28,000 distributed 19 years ago, in the program's first year.
The boxes are being collected for shipment the week of Nov. 12 to 19, and delivery takes place over the next few months; all should be at their destination by the end of March. Donors are asked to include a $7 donation with each box to cover the cost of shipping. The organization enlists churches in the communities where the boxes are sent to handle the final distribution. All but a few which go to Native American communities are delivered to foreign countries..
Anyone interested in donating to the program can pick up boxes at the church, at 401 Morgnec Road Call Dianne Cook at 410-438-6043 for local information, or email CentralDelmarOCC gmail.com for regional information.