A step in the right direction: This woman is changing lives, one pair of shoes at a time.
It was one of those moments; a simple question that changed my life. “When are you coming back?”
I was getting over a divorce, raising my kids Morgan, Hannah, and Christopher, who were all under five. I made a decent living as a hairstylist, had a nice home but I felt guilty about the family breaking up—so I spoiled them. I took them on exotic vacations, shopping sprees for name-brand shoes, whatever they wanted. I overcompensated a bit. It was my way of showing them what I thought love was. But what kind of example was I setting?
In the spring of 1999, I went to Peten, Guatemala, to run a half-marathon. As I was running, I spotted a group of kids dipping their feet in sticky black goo. “What’s that?” I asked a fellow runner.
“They put tar on the soles of their feet since they have no shoes,” he said. “Barefoot, they’re susceptible to lacerations and dangerous bacteria from the soil. They think the tar protects them.” I stared down at my hundred-dollar running shoes. Do people really live like this? I hated to stub my toe. These kids walked miles barefoot on gravelly hot roads.
During the flight home I couldn’t shake the image. How could these kids play like kids are supposed to? I thought of my own kids and how much they had. All because I felt guilty. Now another kind of guilt tore through me. Lord, maybe my priorities haven’t been right. Tell me how I can help these kids. The answer came suddenly. What did Americans do with shoes? Threw them away—usually in good shape. And kids? They outgrew shoes—and fashion—almost as fast as you could buy them. I knew what to do—collect lots of shoes and take them to Guatemala. I told my idea to friends, neighbors, my kids—anyone who’d listen. I got some funny looks but I also got shoes. “Here, Mom, I’m almost too big for these,” said my seven-year-old daughter Hannah, handing over her favorite black Mary Jane shoes. I was so proud of her! Before long my garage overflowed with all kinds of shoes—till eventually they spilled onto tarps on the lawn.
Around Christmas time I flew back to an orphanage outside of Guatemala City. I trudged up to the entrance where a nun stood in the doorway. “I have boxes of free shoes for you,” I said.
“Please, come in!” she cried. I nearly choked on the thick air. Such poverty. Can I really make a difference here? Just then, children crowded around me. Most were barefoot. When they saw the piles of sneakers and sandals, they lit up! They giggled as they combed through each box. “These shoes may be their only Christmas gifts,” said the woman. We made sure each child had a pair and left the rest to be distributed. I figured that was it—my good deed. I said goodbye and made my way outside. Then I heard a voice—the woman. “Wait!” she shouted. I turned my head. “When are you coming back?” There it was. The question that shook me to my core. Lady, this was a one-time thing, I thought. “We need help,” she said. “We always need more.”
Again, on the flight I couldn’t shake the image of those kids, as if God were putting it in front of me. Back in Chicago I told my friends, “We’ve got to keep doing this.” I dubbed the organization Share Your Soles . Everything from boots to sandals and slippers, even Roller blades and soccer cleats, poured in. The project outgrew my house. A local real-estate business, CenterPoint Properties, heard about us and donated a warehouse. We got more volunteers and got organized. Sneakers were washed and bleached, dress shoes were polished. Gently used shoes were best.
Share Your Soles grew so much that American Airlines offered to fly us to distribution sites around the world for free! We were able to send 13,000 pairs to New Orleans Katrina victims and 15,000 to Sri Lankan victims in Thailand.
I love delivering shoes, and sometimes I bring my kids along. It’s my new way of spoiling them—by showing them how blessed we really are to be able to help others. Whether it’s bringing winter boots to American Indian reservations, sandals to Africa or sneakers to Central America, my kids love seeing the excitement on the face of a child getting a pair of shoes. It beats anything I could buy them.
The shoes we take for granted can have a profound impact on a child’s life: They can be a form of transportation, a means for education (some kids aren’t accepted to school without shoes), and a source of self-esteem. A pair of shoes can mean all that. They can change a life.
Share Your Soles has distributed over 350,000 shoes. Everyone from Boy Scouts to handicapped children to people of all faiths volunteer. I ask them the question I was asked: “When are you coming back?” I know now when you look outside yourself, you can change lives, even your own. To learn how to donate to Share Your Soles, visit shareyoursoles.com .
By Mona Purdy of Chicago, Illinois
Photo courtesy of Guideposts