Young Shoebox Packer Walking in Faith

September 20, 2016 • United States
Shoebox recipient Alex Nsengimana and Faith Russell celebrate after completing the Team Faith 5K for Operation Christmas Child.

A ten-year-old girl and her family partner with Keller Williams and their Tennessee community to pack 20,001 Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.

Every time Faith Russell crosses the finish line, it’s a glimpse of God’s glory. That’s how her mother Robin puts it, and it’s not just a mother’s pride. Faith was born with the worst form of spina bifida, a birth defect where the backbone and spinal canal do not close. Doctors originally told Faith’s parents that she’d be like a “vegetable,” and later, that she would never walk. But on Saturday, September 10, at the Team Faith 5K in Maryville, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville, Faith completed her cumulative 100th mile in a race. That’s a lot of events and a lot of steps!

“When you can’t feel your feet it makes you wonder how you put one foot in front of the other,” Greg Russell, Faith’s father, said. “She’ll tell you it’s through God who allowed her to walk.”

“She’ll tell you it’s through God who allowed her to walk.”

Faith inspired other participants that day, including Alex Nsengimana, a shoebox recipient from Rwanda who finished first, as well as Brian Bush, who pushed his son Cameron with special needs through the race.

“Faith is pretty inspiring,” Brian said. “She’s somebody who always thinks of someone else.”

That’s the way Faith likes it. Three years ago, she asked her parents to sponsor a Team Faith 5K in honor of her birthday, instead of giving her gifts. At this event every year since, she’s asked participants to bring items for Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes. She and her brother Griffin, 13, are passionate about sharing the Gospel with children around the world through this Samaritan’s Purse project.

A God-Sized Goal

In 2014, Samaritan’s Purse featured Faith and Griffin in an article and video when they rallied their church, Oakland Baptist of Maryville, to pack 300 boxes. In that video, Faith announced that although they were packing hundreds, she really wanted to do 20,000. From that point on, it became a goal.

You Can Pack a Shoebox

That December, NBC Nightly News featured Faith and Griffin and their commitment to Operation Christmas Child on a broadcast.

Griffin Russell gives his all as he crosses the finish line.

Griffin Russell gives his all as he crosses the finish line.

Mo Anderson, chief operating officer of Keller Williams International, saw this segment and was captivated by the brother and sister. She had her event team contact the Russells to see if Griffin and Faith would speak at an inspirational brunch at the February 2016 Keller Williams conference in New Orleans.

Unphased, Faith and Griffin told the 12,000 associates at the conference about their heart for Operation Christmas Child and their goal of packing 20,000 shoebox gifts. Faith also sang a solo for the group.

“They weren’t nervous, I was nervous,” their mother Robin said.

Julie Cunningham, one of the Keller Williams realtors from Atlanta at the event, was impressed with how brave and bold Faith was when she walked out on the stage. She thought, This little girl right here is going to change the world. She couldn’t get Faith and Griffin out of her mind during her flight home.

Considering the goal orientation of Keller Williams and their vision—”God. Family. Business.”—Julie thought maybe they could help Faith and Griffin meet their goal. Reaching out to Mo, Julie presented the idea of helping to fund 20,000 shoebox gifts as well as collecting 200,000 shoeboxes through all their offices in 2016. Mo was on board.

Just two weeks after the conference, Julie contacted the Russells.

Partnerships Made It Possible

“When we found out we were packing 20,000 shoeboxes, Greg and I laughed, but for some reason, we had a peace,” Robin said. “We knew that God had a plan and we weren’t willing to step in the way of His plan.”

Julie Cunningham shares the story of how Keller Williams got involved with helping the Russells pack 20,001 shoebox gifts.

Julie Cunningham shares the story of how Keller Williams got involved with helping the Russells pack 20,001 shoebox gifts.

Keller Williams paid the expense of hygiene items for all 20,000 boxes. Robin got on the phone with a local discount store to order 2,000 10-packs of soap only to receive calls from three different managers clarifying the amount she needed.

She and some other volunteers canvassed three counties purchasing notebooks from every discount store in the area. One manager asked questions about the volume they were purchasing and ended up donating 1,300 notebooks to the cause.

Hemiplegic stroke survivor Vicky Wallace completed the race with one leg and the help of Melissa Peplow.

Hemiplegic stroke survivor Vicky Wallace (left) completed the race with one leg and the help of Melissa Peplow.

People from different churches and faiths came together to work toward this goal. “Our family couldn’t do it by ourselves. We had to have help,” Robin said.

Greg, a courier, inquired about assistance at one of his package delivery stops. Newell Rubbermaid wasn’t on his usual route, but while there, he asked who he should contact about donations. The person fielding the question knew Faith and had run in a 5K with her.

They soon agreed to donate 16 pallets of writing utensils. This yielded approximately 80,000 pencils, 40,000 highlighters, 100,000 scented Mr. Sketch markers, and thousands and thousands of Sharpies, all made in Maryville.

The Russell family dentist networked to donate thousands of toothbrushes to the cause as well.

“Lord, Change the World and Let It Start with Me.”

Since August 1, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday the Russells worked with members of the community to assemble boxes, prepare hygiene packets (including soap, a washcloth, and a toothbrush), and get other items ready to be included in the shoebox gifts.

The surrounding community poured into the Forest Hills Baptist Church gym to pack shoeboxes.

The surrounding community poured into the Forest Hills Baptist Church gym to pack shoeboxes.

Momentum for the project was contagious. “It doesn’t matter how old you are,” Robin said. “We had a 94-year-old on hospice care folding boxes for us.”

At noon on the day of the Team Faith 5K, hundreds of people gathered at Forest Hills Baptist Church in Maryville to pack the boxes. Some had come from as far away as Florida and Missouri for the occasion. Alex Nsengimana kicked off the event by sharing how he survived the Rwandan genocide and got his Operation Christmas Child shoebox gift in an orphanage at age 7.

Faith and a music duo from Nashville also performed a song in which the chorus ended, “Lord, change the world and let it start with me.”

20,001 Shoebox Gifts

Then the packing began. John Fischbach of First Baptist Concord in Knoxville, Tennessee, was at the end of the assembly line putting packed shoeboxes into cartons for transport. The art director of a graphic design firm in Maryville, John got to know Greg Russell through his courier deliveries. Now friends, John said of the Russells, “I don’t know of a family that understands how to be the hands and feet of Jesus like this family.”

Less than four hours later, the 20,001st shoebox was ready. Why the one? “Because there’s always room for one more,” Faith said.

Faith, Alex, and Griffin kick off the shoebox packing.

Faith, Alex, and Griffin kick off the shoebox packing.

Volunteers gathered between the two 53-foot trailers full of shoeboxes and prayed for the children who would receive them in Jesus’ Name.

“With one simple shoebox, you can change the whole world,” Faith said.

Robin agrees and said, “It’s not about the Russell family or Faith and Griffin. It was their vision but without the community support we never could have done this. It’s been amazing to see it all come together and unfold. No doubt God has orchestrated every detail.”

Greg’s been blessed by the whole process as well. “Every parent is proud of their kids,” he said, “but mine really are my heroes because they get the big picture.”

Since there’s still time before 4,500 drop-off locations are open during National Collection Week, November 14-21, 2016, the Russells want others to pack shoeboxes as well.

“Anyone can pack a simple shoebox and send it across the world,” Griffin said. “It can change a whole family, a whole village.”

“Anyone can pack a simple shoebox and send it across the world.”

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