Today is National Shoe the World Day, a day helping to change the fact that in the realm of humanitarian aid, shoes are often an overlooked necessity. Of course, people need food, water, clothes and medicine, but shoes aren’t always top of mind as essential.
At Buckner, shoes is one of the most vital services we offer domestically and internationally through Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls®. As Shoes for Orphan Souls celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, we have learned how new shoes are the first step out of poverty for vulnerable children and families.
Shoes are often the most difficult item to get in materially poor communities. We can make clothes; we can grow food; water filters can produce clean water over the course of decades before they give out. It’s quite difficult though to make a pair of durable shoes. And for many children around the world, a pair of shoes can be the difference between a hopeful future or a bleak one.
In a practical sense, we need shoes to keep our feet healthy. It’s very easy to get diseases like tetanus if you are walking barefoot in rustic conditions, not to mention even more common things like infections.
African countries like Kenya are battling widespread jigger outbreaks – a small parasitic flea that burrows into the body through the soles of the feet and grow up to 2,000 times their original size in 10 days. They then become like small tumors all over the foot, resulting in pain and difficulty walking. Often the only treatment is to cut them out with a scalpel. And jiggers are not only in Africa – children in South America and the Caribbean are also at risk of contracting this parasite. A sturdy pair of shoes is a much better alternative than a long-term, painful treatment.
In addition to our health needs, shoes are a key to education. Even in the poorest countries, children are often required to have a pair of shoes to attend classes. But it’s not just limited to “poor” countries – Buckner receives requests from schools in the U.S. whose children are wearing shoes that are falling apart, and the cost to replace them is out of reach for their families.
It’s common wisdom that education is a key factor in long-term poverty alleviation – Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” How tragic that bright, eager children would be kept from their best chance at changing their circumstances through lack of a pair of shoes.
In a more holistic way, a pair of new shoes can be very meaningful to a child who is often the recipient of used clothing and hand-me-downs. I vividly remember the excitement of buying back-to-school shoes with my mother, and for children wearing mostly used clothes and sibling hand-me-downs, a pair of shoes they can claim sole ownership of speaks volumes in terms of their worth and value.
As Americans, it’s easy to fall into the trap that used goods are “good enough” for people in poverty, but honestly, every 8-year-old wants a shiny new pair of sneakers for their first day of class, whether they live in Texas or Peru. By providing that pair of shoes, we give them the practical support of disease prevention and access to education, as well as an invaluable sense of their own importance and abilities.
A long-term goal of our work in shoeing the world is that families would eventually no longer need Buckner’s help. We don’t want to perpetuate the cycle often associated with a donation program: give shoes to the needy, take photos, come back next year when the shoes are worn out and repeat the process. If you’re only meeting a material need with no additional support, it’s a band-aid and not a solution.
Because Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls is part of the greater framework of Buckner International, families receiving shoes are introduced to a wide array of additional services available through our Buckner Family Hope Centers. Shoes become an opportunity to learn about job training classes, parenting workshops, financial literacy and numerous other programs families can use to change their circumstances.
Our most successful shoe distributions are ones leading families to take classes to change their lives, and then ultimately, not needing Buckner anymore. The families we serve become empowered to meet their needs rather than depending on charity.
In so many ways, a pair of shoes is a simple thing. It’s a simple answer to pressing health crises, an opportunity to go to school and a tangible proof of a child’s infinite worth. It’s so easy today to be overwhelmed by all of the need that exists around us, but we can start chipping away at that need by providing one pair of shoes to one child at a time, and through that action we can both shoe and change the world.