Growing up in Ukraine, when 9-year-old Nadia Karnatova heard that someone would give her a Christmas gift, she assumed it would be an apple or an orange – the fruit given to a poor child at church for the holiday.

Instead, she discovered something more precious. It was a gift that might have excited another child for a few minutes but one that changed Karnatova’s life.

It was a Barbie doll, a toy she had dreamed of owning.

Now, at 32, Karnatova shares gifts like that with children she’s never met all over the world, and she teaches her own children to do the same.

The gifts are packed and sent through Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian organization.

The project’s mission is “to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way to children in need around the world,” according to its website. It does this by including booklets describing Jesus’ life in the boxes it sends, and by offering 12-week classes to children who get them, said Wally Ziolo, the central Ohio coordinator for Operation Christmas Child.

The shoebox is a “vessel” for expressing God’s love, Ziolo said.

“We see God doing amazing things through the shoeboxes,” he said.

More than 146 million shoebox gifts have been delivered since the project began in 1993, according to the website.

Karnatova’s giving was spurred by the special gift she received as a child. After coming to America with her family at age 14, Karnatova saw a box like the one she had received in a LifeWay Christian store.

She instantly remembered it.

“I’m a true believer that when God does something for you, you have to give back,” said Karnatova, who lives in Hilliard with her husband and three young children.

She talked to her brother, who had met a woman who worked for Samaritan’s Purse and found other people who had received the boxes as children to speak about what it meant to them.

“I know how much impact this shoebox can make,” she said. “I know it does give people hope, so to me it’s very special.”

Now, Karnatova and her brother speak often about receiving the boxes as children and about the importance of making and sending them.

Karnatova’s childhood was filled with love, but she also remembers struggles, sharing clothes and toothbrushes with her eight siblings and getting creative at playtime because they lacked toys.

Before Karnatova and her family came to America in 2000, her mother gave away her Barbie to a friend with a young girl. Her mother called the friend a few years ago and learned that she, too, had passed it on.

“That’s what Operation Christmas Child does,” Karnatova said. ”(It offers) the opportunity to give.”

Jennifer Johns of Heath took her 8-year-old daughter, Falon, to pack boxes and see Karnatova speak Nov. 3 at the Licking County Family YMCA.

She thought Karnatova’s story was amazing and enjoyed the fact that the Barbie she’d received likely still is loved by a child in Ukraine.

“We don’t realize all the things that we take for granted,” Johns said in an email. “I have to admit when listening to her story, I started to tear up and almost cry. It makes you feel so thankful for all that we have.”

On the way home from the event, Falon told her mother, “ ‘Mom, when we get home, let’s go through my toys and send them to kids in need,’ ” Johns said.

“That made my heart so full knowing that she felt that way,” she said.

Johns said the boxes are not just gifts to the children – they’ve been prayed over by the preparer.

“Never take for granted the gift of love; the opportunity we have to serve others, especially children,” Johns said.

Karnatova encourages others to pack and send the boxes.

“This is just a small little thing you can do, but God will take this box ... and he will bring joy to another little kid,” she said.

dking@dispatch.com

@DanaeKing