From shoes to family: A church shoe drive brings Russian orphans home

By Lauren Hollon Sturdy

A grainy photograph from Buckner archives shows a young Russian girl sitting in a small plastic chair wearing a puffy purple coat and glasses. Natasha Votyakova, the director of Buckner Russia, kneels at the girl’s feet, fitting her with new shoes. The image has been used many times on promotional materials since it was first taken at Orphanage #40 in St. Petersburg in the early 2000s. It’s featured in the current Shoe Drive Coordinator’s Guide all people receive when they sign up to host a shoe drive with Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls®.

For that little girl and for the thousands of orphan children who receive new shoes each year through Buckner, the feeling of a new pair of shoes given especially to them provides a moment of hope, light and reprieve from the oppressive gloom of life lived in an institution.

When Ray and Martha Delawder speak in churches to promote Grace Memorial Community Church’s annual area shoe drive, they sometimes are asked, “Whatever happens to these orphan children?” With a smile, they point to the picture of the girl in the purple coat and say, “We don’t know the story of every child who gets a new pair of shoes, but we can tell you about this one.”

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Grace Memorial Community Church celebrated their 15th year of shoe drives this past July. A small church in Cumberland, Md., they stumbled into shoe collecting almost by accident when one of their past members, Bev Cook, was catching up with a friend back home in Texas during a phone call.

“My friend said, ‘I heard Buckner is going to have a shoe drive and they’re going to take a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. They’re using the radio now to try to collect shoes to take for the orphanages.’ She told me the whole story,” Bev says. “I called my husband Clint and said, ‘I really want to go on this trip.’ He said OK. I immediately called Buckner, put my name down and sent my deposit.”

That was 1999. Bev returned from her mission trip to St. Petersburg a changed woman and couldn’t keep what she saw to herself. She became an evangelist for Russia, Buckner and Shoes for Orphan Souls.

The first Sunday after coming home to Cumberland she recounted the trip at Grace Memorial. Later that afternoon fellow church members Ray and Martha Delawder called to ask if they could come over to Bev and Clint’s house to hear more. They hardly knew each other, but all four felt a quick bond. After hearing Bev’s testimony from the trip, Ray and Martha knew they had to adopt a child from Russia. They called Buckner and started the process.

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Bev’s excitement for Shoes for Orphan Souls was infectious, and the missions committee at Grace Memorial began planning a shoe drive for the following August. But Bev didn’t stop there. She says she spent every Sunday speaking to a different congregation throughout the region about what she saw in the orphanages and how they could help.

Don Diehl, a member of Grace Memorial, remembers planning for the church’s first shoe drive in 2000 with the church’s mission committee.

“I said to the group, ‘If we get 300 or 400 pairs, I’ll be tickled to death.’ That year we collected 3,003 pairs of shoes,” Don says. “Everyone was just shocked.”

After that first year, the church was sold on the project, and their enthusiasm spread over a tri-state area. Churches in Pennsylvania and West Virginia heard about the annual project and contributed to the effort. Overall, 27 other congregations have joined the cause.

Support from the local community and the dedication of Grace Memorial has been huge, and over the past 15 years, the church has collected more than 45,000 pairs of shoes. By Don’s accounting, 45,535 lives have been touched by the faithfulness of his small church.

“It’s just an exciting thing we like to do,” Don says. “It’s been a really exciting thing in the community. We’ve had lots of churches involved, schools, our hospital and other local businesses.”

2014 was Don’s last year to chair the drive. Next year, the Delawders will take up the chairmanship. They are eager to continue championing the cause and have plans for new ways to energize the community to participate in the shoe drive. Their biggest motivation, however, lies in the faces of their adopted daughters.

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[caption id="attachment_11532" align="alignright" width="500"] Elena Delawder was adopted from Russia through Buckner in March 2001. Later that year, at home in Maryland, she helped with her church's annual shoe drive.[/caption]

After hearing Bev’s story and starting the process to adopt through Buckner, Ray and Martha brought home Elena – the little girl in the puffy, purple coat – from Orphanage #40 in early 2001. She was 5 years old and had been placed at the orphanage at just 3 days old.

Three years later they added to their family through intercountry adoption again when they brought Katya home from Orphanage #2 in St. Petersburg. Katya lived in the orphanage for only nine months, but both girls’ bodies bore the effects of institutional care.

Elena had surgery on her Achilles tendon and her foot to straighten it out and help improve her control over her leg. Katya has always had trouble with the skin on her feet cracking open and becoming infected; doctors guess she may have suffered frostbite from inadequate shoes.

“I’ll never forget the conditions we saw when we went to pick up Elena,” says Ray. “We saw the conditions of the kids and their feet and how they had to share everything. The shoes and coats were in a big pile in the middle of the orphanage floor.”
Martha says the girls still remember how they felt on new shoe distribution days.

“They were always excited about getting anything new. They knew it was something special.”

[caption id="attachment_11533" align="alignright" width="500"] Katya Delawder came home to her forever family in April 2004. This is one of the photos Ray and Martha received from Buckner before the adoption was finalized. It was taken at Orphanage #2 in St. Petersburg, where Katya lived.[/caption]

Today at 19 and 15, Elena and Katya can be territorial with their possessions due to not having anything to call their own in the orphanages. But after more than a decade living in their forever family, the girls are thriving.

Martha says Elena’s name means ‘light’ and she lives up to it by lighting up any room she walks into. She’s always been affectionate, loves animals and wants to become a veterinary technician after graduating high school. Katya “tells it like it is,” says Ray – and is “a typical Russian” with strong opinions. Martha thinks Katya’s love for debate will make her into a great lawyer someday. Though neither girl is interested in visiting Russia at this stage in life, Katya has made a study of her birth land’s history and politics and has been known to correct her teacher when he gets the facts wrong.

Ray and Martha wanted to instill a love for serving others in both girls. Elena and Katya have helped out with the Grace Memorial shoe drive each year they’ve been home, and have even told their stories to spread the word about the need for shoes. They’ve taken the Shoes for Orphan Souls message into their schools and when the time comes to prepare shoes for shipment to Buckner, the girls are always involved in counting and packing.

“As long as there’s a need and this desire is in our hearts, we plan to be a part of Shoes for Orphan Souls,” Ray says. “If we can change the life of a child, why would we stop?”

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Shoe shopaholics answer the call


Each year as summer draws to a close, the Hershberger household starts getting a little crowded. There are shoes stacked on end tables. Boxes of shoes teeter on one side of the sofa. Shoes by the hundreds fill the attic.

It’s the result of a year’s worth of bargain hunting and shoe shopping on the part of Ruth Jean and Nyle Hershberger. In the past six years of purchasing shoes, they have personally contributed more than 12,200 pairs of shoes to Grace Memorial Community Church’s shoe drive.

They aren’t members of Grace Memorial – they actually live about an hour and a half away in Johnstown, Penn. – but they heard about the annual shoe drive through a Maryland radio station and immediately knew it was a cause they wanted to join.

They spend the entire year scouring any shoe stores they come across for the best deals on high-quality children’s athletic shoes to contribute to Grace Memorial’s end of summer shoe drive.

“How often do we go shopping? Let’s put it this way: when the Lord says, ‘You oughta go shopping today for shoes,’ we go,” Nyle explains. “That may sound goofy to other people, but we go.

“God has blessed us, so we are able to bless other people. People make decisions how they answer God’s call to provide something that will help what God needs to have done. God’s hands are you and I, and therefore we are willing to let our hands go there.”

Lauren Hollon Sturdy is the web content editor for Buckner International. You can reach her at lsturdy[at]buckner[dot]org. Photos for this story are courtesy of Ray and Martha Delawder and Grace Memorial Community Church.

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