Dental floss: How Operation Christmas Child helped save one family’s lives | VailDaily.com

Dental floss: How Operation Christmas Child helped save one family’s lives

EDWARDS — Vladimir Prokhnevskiy is one of nine children who grew up in Ukraine eating rice and potatoes because there wasn't anything else.

"I was a vegetarian before it was a thing," Prokhnevskiy said.

A shoebox changed his life. It came from Operation Christmas Child when he was 9 years old packed with wondrous stuff and was the first gift he had ever received. Among the gifts was dental floss, which is a great story.

But before we can tell you that story, we have to tell you this story.

Underground church

Prokhnevskiy's father was the pastor of an underground church in Ukraine, which was any church that was not registered or monitored by the state. They met in apartments or back rooms or in the woods. Occasionally, someone would call the police, who would arrest Prokhnevskiy's father because he was the leader. After some of those arrests, Ukraine newspapers would write stories accusing his father of being a pedophile.

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His father also worked in a state-owned factory, as did everyone else in Ukraine.

"Every time he was captured, it affected his pay. When you have a family of nine children, they hit him where it hurts." Prokhnevskiy said.

One time, they tried to send him to Chernobyl to work on the nuclear reactor, Prokhnevskiy said.

They were so poor they shared a toothbrush. They only had a couple of pairs of shoes to wear, so they shared them to go outside to play.

"I remember playing with shoes like they were cars. We didn't have toys to play with," Prokhnevskiy said. "We were pretty creative."

They'd find old Coca-Cola bottle caps, turn them on their side and fasten them together and wrap some string to make yo-yos. His Operation Christmas Child box contained a Yo-Yo.

"I was so excited!" Prokhnevskiy said.

They made toy roads out of paper and then made cut-out cars to drive on their paper roads.

His mom made all of their clothes. She did the laundry without a washer or dryer.

"She worked so hard scrubbing with a large block of Russian soap that her hands would crack and bleed," Prokhnevskiy said.

When Christmas came to stay

One winter, they and other low-income families were invited to a Christmas celebration, something that had never happened before. They were told there would be gifts.

So, in the depths of another cold, long, bleak Ukraine winter, they rode a bus with missing windows to get there.

"When we arrived, it was like a big birthday party. Americans are known for their beautiful smiles. We walked in and I had never seen as many smiles in my life. They would sing and dance and give us gifts. We had never seen anything like it in our lives," Prokhnevskiy said.

His Operation Christmas Child shoebox was an actual shoebox wrapped in Christmas paper.

"This was my first Christmas gift. In a family of nine children, it's hard to provide a gift for everyone," Prokhnevskiy said. "All of us got a shoebox."

Eventually, they all sat down and opened their shoeboxes.

"My box had a toothbrush, so I no longer had to share a toothbrush," Prokhnevskiy said.

He had candy for the first time.

"Only the rich kids had candy," Prokhnevskiy said. "I felt like I was finally part of society. Something so simple means so much."

And dental floss.

"I didn't know what it was. I thought it was candy because it was minty. A guy explained that you were supposed to brush your teeth with it. So I did. When the mint wore off, I used the string to tie sticks together and create floats."

It wasn't until years later, after the family immigrated to the United States, that a dentist demonstrated how dental floss is supposed to be used.

"I felt a little silly," Prokhnevskiy said.

In the dead of night

A couple of churches in Tennessee's Tri Cities area — Johnson City, Bristol, Kingsport — sponsored his family and they moved to the United States in 2000. They had to sneak out of Ukraine in the middle of the night.

"One by one, at 3 o'clock in the morning, some security guards we hired took us down the stairs and to the bus," Prokhnevskiy said. "We were afraid someone would attack us, thinking we had money because we were leaving."

They sat separately to keep from attracting too much attention on the bus and at the airport, but stayed within sight of one another. One of his sisters saw one of the Ukraine police circling the area.

"When we were all on the plane, and the plane was in the air, I looked over at my parents and we could see the relief on their faces. They were under so much pressure," Prokhnevskiy said.

Prokhnevskiy is older than his country. He was born in 1987. Ukraine broke away from the Soviet empire in 1991.

"Just because the country broke away from the Soviets does not mean that people change. That takes generations. We were free to practice our religion, but we were still oppressed," Prokhnevskiy said. "Even after the fall, the persecution continued. Our culture taught that if you believed in God, you were weak."

Living in America

Settling into American life was more or-less a breeze, he said. There were some language challenges.

After they were in Tennessee, members of those sponsor churches would bring them food or school supplies, or simply drive them around. One time, a guy drove up to the house and all nine kids piled into his truck. It took some creative Ukrainian-English translating to learn that the guy was the electrician, and the nine kids would not be going for a ride.

Prokhnevskiy played high school soccer, and more than once, the public address announcer would skip his last name — Prokhnevskiy — during introductions.

He's now a web designer for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, parent organization of Samaritan's Purse and Operation Christmas Child. He told his shoebox story for the first time during orientation. They loved it, put him on video and then on the road a few weeks a year.

"Why would a stranger pack a shoebox? They don't know me. Why would someone invest their time and money in a stranger? In Ukraine culture, when someone gives a gift, they expect something in return, there must be strings attached. That kind of unconditional love makes an impression on a 9-year-old kid," Prokhnevskiy said.

"I pray that the Operation Christmas Child gifts we send will bless each child and help them see God's unconditional love — just as my shoebox blessed me."

Operation Christmas Child

National Collection Week is Nov. 13-20.

Locally, churches and schools are participating.

For information, go to http://www.samaritanspurse.org