Thinking back on her life as a child in a Russian orphanage, Oksana Nelson has no point of reference for remembering when the missionaries came to visit. On more than one occasion they came to the orphanage, but the day in question–the bitterly cold day when she received her first gift–she can’t recall if it was before Christmas or after. There had never been a Christmas observance for the children and thus it wasn’t a time they marked each year.
That was more than 10 years ago and now 19-year-old Oksana is the oldest of four children adopted from Russia and Uzbekistan by parents David and Becky Nelson. The family lives in Weatherford where they are active members of Greenwood Baptist Church. It wasn’t long after the family moved from California to Texas three years ago that Oksana arrived at Greenwood to discover people packing Christmas gifts into shoeboxes.
She made the connection. That shoebox of gifts she received that cold winter day in Russia was from Operation Christmas Child, a ministry of North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse. The church was preparing shoebox gifts to be shipped to children around the world. Oksana’s mom encouraged her to tell their pastor, Brian Bond, about her experience. He, in turn, insisted she share her testimony with the rest of the congregation.
This is what she told her church family.
She was 7 years old when she was taken from her parents by local authorities on grounds of neglect. Oksana remembers having to fend for herself as a child, even searching the streets for food.
“The orphanage wasn’t the best place but it was better than before,” she said in a telephone interview with the TEXAN.
There were three “very strict” meals a day, mainly soup and bread. No meat. Candy was something only dreamed of. Such treats, she said, were for rich children. The orphans bathed once every two weeks and their standard issue clothes–which set them apart as outcasts at the local school–were washed once a week.
She shared a bedroom with three other girls and a bathroom with 19 other children. The 20 of them shared a single tube of toothpaste.
Winters were frigid in the community two hours north of Moscow. The bare-boned facility was hardly livable. The windows leaked and the radiators often gave up trying.
There were bright moments, though. Missionaries would visit the children, giving out much-needed hugs and individual attention. Vacation Bible School was presented and one time some of the children, including Oksana, were treated to a week-long camp during the summer.
But it was one visit in particular that had such a significant impact on her. One winter day the missionaries came to the orphanage bearing gifts–something she had never before received.
“I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it because it was my first gift,” Nelson recalled. She opened the package slowly. Everything inside the box belonged to her. That was a concept she could not quite comprehend.
“These were my very own items that no one else had.”
Her favorite gift was a tube of toothpaste. Also in the box were a much-appreciated pair of socks and a game of dominos that she looked forward to sharing with the other children.
And there was candy.
She said: “Out of all those items the two most important things were the pictures of the boy and girl who packed the box. I actually saw faces of people who cared. Some strangers decided to send this to me.”
That was a defining moment for the young girl. She knew someone outside her small world cared.
Following her testimony at Greenwood Baptist, “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” her pastor said.
Oksana’s story had given the members a glimpse of what God could do through their work with Operation Christmas child. For them and Oksana the ministry had come full circle.
Bond said Oksana’s testimony gave a very personal touch to the OCC ministry.
“We’re inundated with pictures but [Oksana] kind of changes the whole perspective. She puts a face on it. Before we knew it she was gone every Sunday speaking at other churches.”
For three years Oksana has been representing OCC in Texas, Louisiana, and across the nation. In November she will speak with OCC founder and Samaritan Purse President Franklin Graham at three national OCC distribution site press conferences.
“What she is a powerful communicator,” said Mark Cooper, OCC regional director for Texas and Louisiana. “She can communicate very well the impact that box had on her life. What it meant to her.”
And, Cooper added, “The other thing that is impressive is that she has no Russian accent.”
Oksana speaks with almost a southern drawl, a result, her mother said, of her daughter’s drive to excel. She picked up English quickly all the while maintaining her Russian. Language is one of her gifts, her mother said.
When Oksana isn’t participating in an OCC promotional event she works at a veterinary clinic and attends Tarleton State University, working toward a degree in agricultural economics.
Greenwood Baptist member Linda Tingle testified to Oksana’s hard work and gracious spirit. Tingle, the Nelson’s neighbor, took time to visit the family when she saw them moving in.
“That was truly, truly a God-send,” Nelson said. The Nelsons knew no one and had left their extended families and church family behind in California.
“The fact that she did that made all the difference in the world.”
The family, she said, was committed to visiting several area churches, not just the closest one, which happened to be Greenwood Baptist. But after following through on that commitment, Nelson said, “Everyone in my family asked, ‘Can we please go back to Greenwood?’”
Tingle said, “The whole family has been a blessing to the church and to me personally.”
And of Oksana specifically, Tingle added, “She is just an overachiever and it’s just so neat. She is just letting God lead her life.”
Even when she was in the orphanage, Oksana exhibited a maturity and faith beyond her years. Her life to that point could have bred in her a fundamental distrust of others and an attitude of self-preservation at any price.
Her mother explained: “Oksana made a conscience decision to make the most of what she has been given. She always had a mature understanding of Christ’s love for her. From the beginning she has understood that sacrifice.”
Oksana said the missionary visits to the orphanage included presentations of the gospel, but it wasn’t until her camp experience that “it really hit” her. While stringing beads that tell the gospel story by color representations, Oksana said she finally understood.
When Becky and David arrived at the Russian orphanage in May 2001, it was the first time they met Oksana. In their hearts, Becky said, the little girl had been their daughter for several months. But they were keenly aware that the 10-year-old would be understandably apprehensive about leaving all she knew and going to live with strangers.
But Becky Nelson said God had already been at work. When the couple was introduced to Oksana, Becky said, “She was just this pleasant, self-aware little girl who took her daddy’s hand.”
A few months later, settled into their California home, Oksana had learned enough English to have a heart-to-heart talk. Becky asked her daughter what had gone through her mind at the moment they met. Was she nervous? Scared?
Oksana said the missionaries told the orphaned children that God is might and taught them how to pray to him. Ever since that moment Oksana said she had been praying for a mom and dad. When they finally arrived at the orphanage, “Why,” she asked her mom, “would I be afraid. God sent you.”