A birth defect doesn’t keep a 9-year-old from advocating for Operation Christmas Child
It would be a challenge for the congregation of just 100 to double their shoebox total from the previous year’s 150 and to raise the $7-per-box shipping costs. But having seen the 9-year-old girl with spina bifida overcome challenges throughout her young life, they knew one thing with certainty: With Faith, nothing is impossible.
“Faith is teaching us to have faith,” said Brenda Brown, Faith’s grandmother.
When Greg and Robin Russell went for their 20-week ultrasound in May 2005 to see whether their second child would be a boy or a girl, the nurse seemed to spend an extra amount of time measuring things before she informed them that they would need to see the doctor. He informed them that their daughter had myelomeningocele, the worst form of spina bifida, a birth defect where the backbone and spinal canal do not close.
The doctor advised that they consider an abortion because she would likely be physically and mentally impaired. A specialist said it “wouldn’t be fair” to their nearly 3-year-old son, Griffin, for them to have this baby. They were given two days to decide.
Greg and Robin were devastated.
“My darkest time was when the doctor was saying that she would never walk,” Greg said. “It’s kind of shallow but the one vision that popped into my head was on her wedding day. I wouldn’t walk her down the aisle, I’d push her.”But for Greg and Robin, “abortion was never an option.” They clung to their faith and often referred to an index card they had around their home that said, “I will not be moved by what I hear. I will not be moved by what I see or what I feel. I will only be moved by what I believe.“
“We believed strongly that God has a purpose for every life,” Robin said.
They clung to the statement about the man born blind in John 9:3, trusting that God’s glory would be revealed whether she would be in a walker or a wheelchair.
Faith arrived on September 28, 2005, and before long the nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit were calling her Scooter because she was pulling her knees up and crawling up in the bed.
She had three surgeries during her first year and Greg and Robin rejoiced every time she rolled over. They prayed regularly that God would give her strength, courage, and confidence and that God would give her a normal life.
“I’ll never forget the first time I walked in and saw her standing up on the side of her crib,” Robin said.
That was just the beginning. At 21 months, Faith shocked doctors as she began walking into appointments.
When Faith was 4, her brother Griffin became fixed on the television news reports from the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. His heart went out to the children and he began asking his parents to adopt from Haiti so there would be “one less without a house or a family.” Greg and Robin explained that they couldn’t just go to Haiti and bring home a child, but Griffin’s heart would not be deterred. For his sake, Robin began looking for a way they could help a child in Haiti.
That’s when she found Operation Christmas Child.
Griffin’s heart was comforted as he packed that first shoebox, hoping it would go to a child in Haiti. Every Christmas and birthday afterward he always asked for his family to adopt. Greg and Robin patiently explained that they couldn’t afford to do so.
Soon, Faith joined the effort and also began asking that they adopt. When it came time for her eighth birthday in 2013, Faith’s request remained the same: could they adopt? Turned down again, she asked if for her birthday party she could pack shoeboxes for children in need.
“Mom thought I wanted to pack eight boxes with seven of my friends, but no, I wanted to do 50,” Faith said.
When Robin explained to Faith how much this would cost, Faith decided to call their pastor. He invited her to share her vision with the church the next Sunday.
Believing in Faith and the mission of the Samaritan’s Purse project, the pastor challenged the church to increase Faith’s goal from 50 to 150. So for Faith’s birthday, members of her church gathered in the Russell garage and packed 150 gift-filled shoeboxes.
Just a few months after her birthday party, Faith told her Mom that she wanted to participate in a 5K race. Robin dismissed it, wanting to protect her daughter from failure. But Faith persisted.
Eventually Robin asked Faith why she wanted to do a 5K and she said, “to show people that God made me walk.” Hearing that, Robin knew they had to pursue it.
Faith trained for the race with Griffin by walking the road in front of their house and by jumping on their trampoline. When the race day came, Robin woke up scared, but when Faith crossed the finish line and threw her arms up in the air in victory, Robin felt like God said, “Don’t try to limit me.” This girl who was told she wouldn’t walk and has no feeling in her feet was displaying His glory.Since then, Faith has done seven other races in her pink and zebra-patterned braces. As he joined her in each one, Griffin wore a T-shirt that said, “Team Faith: Redefining Spina Bifida” with Joshua 1:9 on the back: “Be STRONG and COURAGEOUS for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Joining the family theme of being strong and courageous, Greg and Robin decided shortly after Faith’s eighth birthday that God was using their children to prompt them to adopt. So for Faith’s ninth birthday, she asked to sponsor her own 5K in order to raise money for her family’s adoption. In addition, she asked every participant to bring items for Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.
At the beginning of their journey with spina bifida, Robin was angry at God and asked, “Why me?” But now she prays, “Thank you for picking me to be her mom.”
Looking back, Robin said, “When we were told that Faith would never walk and that her life would be of no quality for her, I lost hope and it was a dark time, but I had hope in Jesus Christ and that’s what pulled me through. The child who receives a shoebox has a mom who might feel hopeless because she can’t feed or clothe her child. In that shoebox that mother can find that same hope that I had in Christ.”
Greg agrees with the importance of Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.
“God’s Word says to go into all the world,” he said. “The shoebox will go where I could never afford to go. We couldn’t just pack up and go to a country, but anybody can pack a shoebox.”
At the Oakland Baptist Church shoebox packing party this year, roughly 50 adults and children gathered to pack their 300 shoeboxes. Among them was 6-year-old Ethan Jackson who gets around with a walker due to his cerebral palsy and 71-year-old Linda Dial who has stage-four cancer and has already lived twice as long as doctors expected.
“I think it’s wonderful that we all feel like Faith does, that we need to give to those who don’t have,” Linda said. “We’re all blessed.”