Max Noel, a determined 10-year-old with a firm handshake, arrived at Fort Mill's Orchard Park Elementary School recently with a crisp $100 bill and a note from his mother tucked into his pocket.
He was puzzled about having enough Christmas money to purchase a Wii video game system when many children can't even afford a book. So, he devised a plan.
Max and his big sister, Catya, used to be orphans in Russia, where money did not matter. Neither did books. Often, they had no food. Catya changed his diapers and fended for them when they were small.
What mattered at first was surviving together. When they later arrived in an orphanage in Krasnodar, other children became a surrogate family. Catya and Max were adopted by Kathy and Jeff Noel of York County when she was 6 and he was 3.
Now a fourth-grader, Max recently decided to donate $100 of his Christmas money to a school book fund.
"Some kids don't even have a book that's never been touched," he explained. "Like a blankey."
Fort Mill schools Superintendent Keith Callicutt has invited Max to the April 14 school board meeting for recognition.
Max, with bright blue eyes, long, curly eyelashes and a freckled nose, undoubtedly will handle it all with aplomb.
According to their mom, Max and Catya were given three crisp $100 bills for Christmas to share the cost of a Wii. But finding a Wii proved to be almost as difficult as an international adoption.
Orchard Park's PTO was having a book fair fundraising project that involved the students, and a missionary spoke about children who cannot get books.
Max thought about how he would raise money for the book drive.
"I also thought it would take years to find a Wii," he said.
Max soon announced he would use $100 of his Wii money to buy books for children who don't have them.
"He was adamant about it," his mother said. "Max is tiny, but he's big in spirit."
He agreed to do chores and donate allowance funds to replenish the Wii fund. Last weekend, he suggested planting flowers, choosing the plants with his father.
"Me and dad put blankets over the flowers to keep them from freezing," he said. For that, he earned $2.
He has agreed to wash his mother's van, a task that will be accomplished with a sponge because of water restrictions. It should bring the Wii fund to $15 or $20.
"I'll provide the ladder or dad's shoulders," mom said.
Max can recall Russia only "faintly," he said. He remembers Catya running around in a strawberry patch behind an apartment building and his mother yelling.
He remembers being scared about witch stories and seeing beautiful flowers outside the orphanage.
"There was a couch in the hallway at the orphanage," he recalled. "It had flowers on it. I would curl up on the couch with Catya, and all the children were running around."
After a year of paperwork, the Noels adopted Max and Catya. Before departing for home with the children, they bought something for each of the children to remind them of their homeland. Kathy selected a beautiful doll for Catya in Krasnodar.
"As we were getting into the car to leave the orphanage," the mother recalls, "Catya turned to her best friend and handed her the nicest one-of-a-kind doll I had lovingly chosen for her. We drove away from the orphanage waving to the crowd and seeing the nicest one-of-a-kind doll being hugged by Catya's best friend."
In the United States, Catya used the survival skills she'd developed in Russia by immersing herself into the first grade, despite the fact that she knew no English.
Unbeknownst to his new parents, Max was quietly listening and learning English for a long time before he spoke.
"His first English words were 'Mom, get out of the way,'" his mother said with a chuckle. "I was standing in front of the TV."
He's looking forward to washing down the family porch to earn Wii fund money. He's also reading his current favorite book, "Revenge of the Shadow King."
"So far, we're a quarter of a centimeter into it," he said with authority.
Max does have one material possession with which he would rather not part.
"I still have my blankey," he boasted.