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Farragut group brings cheer to orphans
Moldova youth benefit from First Baptist Church, Concord, men’s time, generousity

When the Pentagon says “more boots on the ground,” its generals mean boosting U.S. military presence in such trouble spots as Afghanistan or Iraq.

But when eight Farragut men from First Baptist Church, Concord, mention “boot trips” abroad, theirs is a selfless mission — one that aids children as it reflects the seasonal message of giving freely of one’s blessings.

Since Thanksgiving, the eight Tennesseans have flown halfway around the world and back to help orphans in impoverished Moldova — an Eastern European nation where hope’s become a luxury that few can afford.

It’s a holiday tradition to help neighbors. But these “neighbors” — children and disabled adults alike — live on the opposite side of the globe.

Moldova — a tiny, landlocked former Soviet satellite, has been a democracy since it won 1991 independence from the old USSR. Its 3.4 million people, most in abject poverty, occupy 13,000 square miles — an area smaller than West Virginia.

Leading the men’s mission was Ryan McElveen, a medical devices salesman accompanied by other First Baptist Concord members. Teammates, at their own expense, worked three weeks ensuring that Moldovan children and adults in state institutions have warm footwear to see them through their long, harsh winter.

Craig Bird, communications director for the sponsoring Children’s Emergency Relief International group, said Tennesseans were among 48 CERI team members working with U.S. Ambassador Michael D. Kirby and Moldovans.

Teams visited all 66 state-run Moldovan orphanages and fit 12,000 pairs of boots, most for children. Convoys picked up boots from an Odessa warehouse, then fanned out from Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, taking U.S.-made socks and Chinese boots into Moldova’s remotest areas.

“We wanted to buy locally to help Moldova,” said McElveen, whose crew flew there via Frankfurt, Germany. But quality Moldovan boots weren’t available. Kentucky Derby Hosiery Company of North Carolina generously donated pairs of socks for each child in “Operation Knit Together,” concluded Thursday, Dec. 14.

CERI team members hailed from eight states. Moldovan Education Minister Viktor Tsvirkun said joint efforts showed how much two entities with common goals can achieve.

“We ensure a better life for children,” Tsvirkun said. “You’ve brought joy to thousands. We look forward to continuing this partnership. Our doors are always open to you.”

Bird said of the Farragut crew: “Their efforts deeply touched the lives of many children, mental patients and physically handicapped Moldovans.”

“They touched us, too,” McElveen said. Before leaving the U.S., he’d told teammates, based on his previous trips, that their “boots” expedition would prove unforgettable.

“There’s always that lingering memory — one child who stands out,” he said. “That has lasting impact on your life.”

The Florida State University alumnus, who moved to Farragut 18 months ago and has adopted a Moldovan child, said his actions were influenced by “Lena,” a Moldovan orphan he’d met. In her honor, he’s begun Lena’s Hope, a nonprofit foundation placing orphans with caring


Moldova’s stagnant economy and lack of jobs, McElveen said, has led to much alcoholism. Abject poverty makes many abandon children to institutions. Sadly, Moldova’s 20,000 orphans — many girls — risk exploitation by international sexual


Statistics show 60 percent of East European prostitutes come from Moldova, where 80 percent subsist on $1 a day. One in four Moldovans has left to seek work abroad. Youths, who must leave orphanages by age 15, often turn to crime, are imprisoned or commit suicide.

Lena’s Hope Foundation arose from earlier “boot trips” when McElveen attended First Baptist Church, Kingwood, Texas. Pastor there, Dr. Dearing Garner, is an Erwin, Tenn., native, retired now after 27 years preaching. But Garner, for a decade, has coordinated “boots” for CERI, international arm of Baptist Child and Family Services.

Buying boots this year took $150,000 of a $200,000 budget. But Garner said:

“We started this in two thousand because we saw children with no shoes suffering frostbite. We never dreamed then of having shoes to fit each child.”

Participating with McElveen were Bill Wilkinson, Shane Woidtke, Shane Penn, Bryan Powell, Steve Eimers, Jamie Abbott and Wiley Hammer, all of Farragut. McElveen said teammates, of varied professions, each contributed skills.

One sold UT season tickets, he said, to raise Moldovan trip funds.

“We had different Sunday school classes, but we came together well,” McElveen said. Hammer, who only recently had returned from Arrmy logistics duty in Iraq, “ran my shoe truck,” McElveen said. “Couldn’t have done it without him.” Steve Eimers, a window-cleaning service owner, passed out socks — then brightened orphanages’ dirty windows.

Teammates used three semi-trailer trucks to take shoes to orphanages, boarding schools and state institutions sheltering victims of psychoneurological


McElveen said: “Most kids we help have owned just one pair of shoes, so you see eyes light up. What some wear, you couldn’t really call shoes. We take so little to them that’s tangible. But we bring back so much:  vivid memories, new perspectives on how blessed we are, even if we sometimes feel broke. We have opportunity they lack.

“They live in grinding poverty,” he added. “But I keep going back because Moldovans are the brightest people I’ve ever met. Since their country is dirt poor, they must work hard just to survive. With opportunities we enjoy, many would become millionaires.”

“Boots” teams five years ago, McElveen said, met with far more suspicion among Moldovans, long oppressed under communism. Apparent thawing makes Moldova more accessible to Westerners — and Christians.

“Some vestiges of the old Soviet guard and a culture of corruption remain,” he said. “Facility directors enjoy autonomy, and some refuse us access,” he said. “We’re not there to teach Bible lessons; but ours is an evangelical mission. We share God’s love — to convince them we care. And we distribute the Gospel of John in Russian.”

Others wishing to help Moldovans may visit or contact McElveen at or 865-771-5223.


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