By Jimmy Robertson
’Tis the season for hope, and people diligently search everywhere for it. Some search in stockings, others through carols and cards, and many believe it comes in whatever sits at the base of a light-filled spruce on Christmas morning.
For one Virginia Tech alumna, hope came in a red and green shoebox.
Eighteen years ago, Elizabeth Henry Groff ’17 received a shoe box filled with gifts, school supplies, and hygiene items as part of Operation Christmas Child, an initiative coordinated by Christian-based Samaritan’s Purse, while living in an orphanage in Ukraine. In despair at the time and separated from her younger half-sister, the then-11-year-old remembered pulling a yo-yo from the box, an item that, to her, symbolized the “love and hope of Jesus.”
Since then, Groff has devoted much of her life to packing and collecting shoeboxes filled with gifts for underprivileged children. Now a national spokesperson for Operation Christmas Child, she is preparing to return to Ukraine on the weekend of Jan. 20-22. Fittingly, Samaritan’s Purse officials chose her to hand out Operation Christmas Child’s 200 millionth shoebox since its launch in 1993.
“I think I’m still processing the whole thing myself,” Groff said. “It’s been 18 years since I received my shoebox, and now, being able to go back to my home country and share that same love and hope of Jesus in such a tangible way with a child in Ukraine, it truly is a dream come true. I’m just thankful for the opportunity to be able to do that and to be able to serve through this ministry.”
Groff, who graduated with degrees in human development within the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and psychology within the College of Science, spent most of her childhood in that Ukrainian orphanage. She participated in a local choir there, and that led to a trip to the United States. The host family whom she stayed with ended up adopting her two years later, bringing her to their home in Williamsburg.
Not long after arriving, she decided to help the family’s local church pack and collect shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. She continued her mission while working toward her undergraduate degree at Virginia Tech. She even involved the Virginia Tech football team after becoming friends with Antone Exum, an All-ACC player who lived in the same residence hall as her.
Groff estimates that she, her family, and her Virginia Tech friends have packed and collected approximately 8,000 shoeboxes over the years.
“I can’t share my life story without mentioning Operation Christmas Child because my life kind of fell apart once I lost my sister at the orphanage when we were separated,” Groff said. “I felt like I had no will to live to be honest because she was my entire purpose. So when Operation Christmas Child came to my orphanage, it was a direct response to my prayer. … It brought me so much hope, hope for the future, hope that someone cared, hope that things will be OK. Now that I’m here and I have the means to do the same for other children, when I do it, I think we’re here for that exact purpose, which is to serve others.”
After graduating from Virginia Tech, Groff went to the University of Miami, where she earned her master’s degree in public health. Her workload took her away from Operation Christmas Child duties for a while, but a reconnection with her half-sister last December led to her reinvolvement.
Groff found her half-sister after receiving a random Instagram message from a journalist in Ukraine who told Groff that her half-sister was looking for her. The journalist worked for a television show in Ukraine that reunited people and found video of Groff sharing at an Operation Christmas Child event about losing touch with her half-sister.
Groff ultimately flew back to Ukraine to meet with her sibling. At that point, she decided to get back involved with Operation Christmas Child. She resumed her role as a national spokesperson and has traveled all over the world. Over the years, she has traveled to places such as Madagascar and South Korea, sharing her story and a shoebox to those who need both.
Groff and her parents worked to get her half-sister to come to the United States under a federal program called Uniting for Ukraine, which is a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members who reside outside the U.S. to come to the states and stay temporarily in a two-year period of parole. Groff’s half-sister will be able to stay in the U.S. until May 2024.
Today, her half-sister now lives with Groff and her husband in Austin, Texas. Groff works remotely as an independent contractor for several advocacy organizations in Florida dedicated to helping low-income Floridians access dental care.
The war with Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, continues to devastate many parts of her country and leaves her people desperately searching for exactly what many search for this time of year.
The upcoming opportunity to provide hope will be her most special yet. At least for one day, Groff hopes to leave a group of children feeling merry and bright, feelings befitting of the season.
“Children in Ukraine are right now suffering,” Groff said. “They’re being broken, and now more than ever, the children of Ukraine need hope. They need love. They need to know that they’re not alone.”