By Dearing Garner
Every winter, volunteers from Children’s Emergency Relief International (CERI) trudge through snow, ice and freezing cold terrain of Moldova in Eastern Europe to visit children in orphanages. It is always heartwarming to see the smiles on their faces as we put new, warm winter boots and socks on their feet, and share with them the Gospel. CERI’s Winter Shoe Missions always have impressive results, and this year’s trip was no exception. Fifteen volunteers from the United States made 65 stops through the entire nation of Moldova and gave 5,100 pairs of shoes, boots, socks, and hand-made bracelets with colored beads, which told the story of Jesus. They also delivered rare treats, like fresh fruits and candies.
Our team (one of three groups total), included volunteers, CERI staff, translators, van and truck drivers, and even a few volunteers from Moldova. Every team member that goes on the journey with CERI has a special place in my heart, as we share unforgettable experiences together, but this year one volunteer was especially memorable – Dima Mardari. Dima Mardari is a 23-year-old volunteer from Moldova (shown in the photo to the left). He was enthusiastic, well-versed in English, and always saw the bright side of any situation. I invited him to eat with the team every night, and as we fellowshipped together it became clear he was a genuine servant of the Lord. During a bumpy ride in the van, jostled around by traffic, dodging crazy drivers and potholes, Dima told me he had grown up in Orphanage #2. This used to be the largest orphanage in Moldova filled with children from the city living a cold, harsh, unforgiving existence. Kids who stay at Orphanage #2 learned survival – and with a lot of effort they could learn the skills required to graduate. As he sat next to me, Dima reminisced and described his memories of when CERI visited his orphanage. This young man was actually a recipient of our shoes years ago! He said he wore them gratefully year after year, and eventually graduated. This year, to our good fortune and assuredly by divine intervention, he called our CERI national director, Catea Babin, and asked if he could participate as a team member to help distribute shoes.
When I think of the hundreds of volunteers, thousands of donors, and thousands of children touched by CERI’s Winter Shoe Missions, Hebrews 12:1-2 takes on a powerful new meaning: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. (New Living Translation) Over the last sixteen years, our many wonderful volunteers, our selfless givers, and numerous grateful orphans have grown into a huge crowd of witnesses to God’s faithfulness. When we met Dima in the van in Chisinau, the circle became complete – the served became the servant. Generations of orphans have lived the years of their youth in orphanages, and some like Dima return with compassion and love for his country’s oppressed. This wasn’t the only extraordinary experience that took place this year. Hannah Willhoite, a freshman from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas, shared how the mission left a lasting mark. “My life was changed as result of the shoe mission to Moldova,” said Hannah, “because it opened my eyes to see how much need there is in the world. It allowed me to realize God calls everyone to declare His name among the nations and that is what I will continue to do the rest of my life. I am very thankful for CERI and all they do to help others and share the good news of Jesus Christ.” Following the distribution of shoes at Orphanage # 7, orphanage director Victoria Stempliuc read a heartfelt message to the CERI team on behalf of the children. “Thank you for providing joy and smiles on the faces of our children,” said Victoria. “Our children are truly happy when they know they are not alone, but they have true friends, such as you. Thank you for caring for us and for the gifts – shoes and socks – offered to our children during the winter holidays. We bow before you, people with big and generous hearts, always there for us. We are deeply moved by your generosity and thank you very much. We wish you many blessings in your activity in the New Year. May God bless you in everything you do and His angels watch over you.” Mary Katherine Sapp, third year student nurse at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas said it well: “To every pair of little hands, desperate eyes and beautiful feet…There is a good Father that loves you without limits or boundaries. There is not a moment that passes that I do not see your faces. You have stolen my heart Moldova.” Nancy Bowling of Russellville, Alabama, aptly described the final hours of the mission: “Our time in Moldova is coming to a close, and we have been blessed beyond words! The faces of orphans are forever imprinted on my heart.” I could not help but reflect on all the shoe missions that preceded 2015. The past few years I have purposefully tried to be more reflective – hard for me since I am so task oriented – sometimes pushing teams to their limits to get all the shoes delivered regardless of weather, customs, factory delays, police who stopped us to check “our papers,” and physical and mental exhaustion. I wanted to see the need, the kids, and the excited volunteers as the Lord sees – through His eyes, with His heart. Dima and others helped me to see more clearly how much the Father loves the orphans.