FORT WORTH -- On a wintry day in 2001, the children gathered in a room at the Ryazan orphanage.
They were in for a rare treat: a party.
Lena, age 8, looked around at the circle of her friends. Most of the Russian girls and boys had been given up by their parents or removed from dysfunctional homes by government authorities. Housed in groups, they shared simple structured lives and faced uncertain futures.
That day, the children briefly forgot their needs and cares. They sang songs. They listened to a story. Young faces lit up with excitement and anticipation when local volunteers with an international humanitarian organization appeared and began happily handing out armloads of wrapped packages.
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Each child received a small shoe-box-size gift.
Lena clutched her present and joined the others as they lifted their silvery voices in unison, counting down the big moment.
"Three ... two ... one!"
Lena opened her package. Inside she found candy and pencils.
It wasn't much by American standards, but to this child, who had little to call her own, the gift was wondrous -- a cherished treasure.
"I felt really loved," Lena recalled. "Somebody miles and miles away had packed something, just for me."
The Russian orphan didn't expect to receive a gift the next year. But she did. A third shoe box came the winter after that. Lena, now 18, remembers wishfully telling herself that if she were ever lucky enough to get adopted, she wanted to do what others had done for her.
Packing the boxes
Marla and Chris Morris adopted Lena and her older biological half sister, Tamara, in spring 2004. The Fort Worth couple had already adopted a 31/2-year-old, Ana, from Russia in December 2001. Later, Natasha and Alyona came to live with them.
This fall, Lena and her siblings took part in a meaningful family holiday tradition.
They bought items and packed gift boxes for children in desperate need.
The Russian-born girls and another adopted sister, Gabriella, filled 50 shoe-box-size containers as part of Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan's Purse, the Christian relief and evangelism organization led by Franklin Graham.
Last year Operation Christmas Child delivered 8.5 million gifts to children in more than 100 countries affected by natural disaster, war, disease, famine and poverty.
Christ Chapel Bible Church, which the Morris family attends, collected about 2,500 boxes.
"Packing the boxes is when Christmas really starts for us," Marla Morris said.
The Morrises filled them with small toys, school supplies, hygiene items and hand-written notes. They also donated $7 for each box for shipping.
A familiar gift
Marla Morris saw the need of children 10 years ago on a mission trip to Russia with Buckner International's Shoes for Orphan Souls. She helped deliver new shoes to about two dozen orphanages.
She had no idea that Natasha and Alyona had been affected by Operation Christmas Child before they were adopted until one day, while packing boxes, Natasha recognized the cover of a book of Bible stories.
As an orphan she had received a shoe box with that book.
Alyona had received a pink toy rabbit.
Both girls still have the keepsakes they hold dear.
"There are children out there who literally have nothing," their mother said. "How can we not pack boxes? How can we not give?"