Return trips to her native Ukraine always bring forth conflicting feelings for Elizabeth Henry Groff ’17, and her recent journey created a cauldron of joy, sadness, worry, and hope.

A national spokesperson for Operation Christmas Child – an initiative sponsored by Christian-based Samaritan’s Purse – Groff was chosen to travel to the war-torn country in mid-January with a team of Samaritan’s Purse staff to hand out Operation Christmas Child’s 200 millionth shoebox. Each year, volunteers worldwide fill shoeboxes with gifts, school supplies, and hygiene items for underprivileged children across the world to share the love and hope of Jesus.

“It was really an amazing experience,” Groff said.

Groff received the invitation because of her back story. She was separated from her younger half-sister and grew up in a Ukrainian orphanage before being adopted by a Williamsburg, Virginia, couple at the age of 13. She vividly remembers opening those shoeboxes and the hope that those gifts provided her.

Groff expected to see that same hope in the eyes of the Ukrainian orphans in Lviv, a city of more than 700,000 about 45 miles from the border with Poland that has avoided the worst of the nation’s war with Russia. At a special distribution event where the 200 millionth shoebox was to be handed out, Groff received more when she helped an 8-year-old girl named Natalya open the 200 millionth shoebox.

The child expressed joy over a wind-up flashlight because the gift provided light for her to go down to the basement when the lights go out during air raids or when the city loses power.

“This is a child, 8-year-old child, and this is what she's thinking about,” Groff said. “So she's not being a child. She's not allowed to be a child right now because of what is going on in Ukraine, so that was really sad.

“But for that moment in that time when she was going through her shoe box, it felt like she was able to be a kid for a little while and to just really be joyful and to enjoy that shoe box and smile and just forget for one second that she is in a country that is being torn apart by war. I think it was heartbreaking, but also a really joyful moment for me to be able to share that with her.”

Natalya expresses joy while opening her shoebox gift
Natalya expressed joy at receiving a wind-up flashlight when she opened her shoebox, knowing that the flashlight would provide light for her and her friends whenever Russian air raids knock out the power. Photo courtesy of Samaritan's Purse.

Groff, who graduated with dual degrees in human development from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and psychology from the College of Science, felt trepidation about returning to Ukraine. She hadn’t been since the end of 2021 when she reunited with her younger half-sister and ultimately brought her to the U.S. as part of the Uniting for Ukraine program. She felt uneasy about returning to a place where she experienced so much heartbreak and a place currently fighting for its existence.

But seeing the people there taking care of each other during the toughest of times inspired her, and probably more importantly, brought her hope.

“For a long time, I wanted to be separated from Ukraine in a way,” Groff said. “When I was adopted at the age of 13, I worked really hard to make sure that I learned English fast, that I didn't have an accent, that no one would know that I was from Ukraine. This is the country where I grew up, where I was born, and the people, they raised me, but I've also had a lot of heartbreak there and things that I went through, so I just wanted to kind of forget that place and close the door on my past and start my new life here in the United States.

“But I'm so glad I went because, going back and seeing how people have really come together, how many people are serving in Ukraine, the Samaritan's Purse team, other organizations, actual residents of Ukraine are coming together to ensure that people of Ukraine are being taken care of. … It was just amazing. It made me proud to be a Ukrainian. It made me proud to be born there. It made me proud to go back and to see my country, and it was just a really great experience.”

The nine-hour return trip from Krakow, Poland, to Charlotte allowed her time both to reflect and to think about her future. On the trip, a colleague shared a Bible verse, Revelations 12:11, that has inspired Groff to continue working with Samaritan’s Purse and to continue sharing not just her story, but what she is seeing others do, particularly what she witnessed in Ukraine.

The verse says, "And they overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony."

“That stuck with me,” Groff said. “While we have won the battle [against Satan and evil], the suffering will not stop, and the pain and violence tempts us to lose hope. But we are called to be triumphant through the word of our testimonies. So, I am planning to continue to share not just my testimony of me receiving a shoebox and what God has done here with my sister, but also my trip to Ukraine and what I saw God doing there in real time.”