In a windowless cement storage unit, three recent graduates of Rock Bridge High School sat in the heat on the dusty floor Thursday sorting shoes. Boxes and bags and piles of them. One box big enough to hold a computer monitor was filled solely with tiny baby shoes. Sarah Ginsburg, Liana Presser and Amanda Perry bound each pair with white ribbon or rubber bands as they sat amongst the piles of shoes.
A neighboring unit was filled with even more shoes,sorted and ready to be shipped to Kenya sometime in the next week or two.
“Shoe Away Poverty,” a shoe drive launched by Ginsburg, Presser and Lauren Towns, has collected thousands of new and used shoes for distribution in orphanages and clinics.
The drive resulted from a trip to Africa this summer. Ginsburg and Presser, who were on the trip, described unpaved roads so pockmarked and bumpy that their bus driver had to drive on the side of the road. Meanwhile, people routinely walked the roads without shoes. That struck a hard chord for the Americans.
Presser, for example, had a pair of Chaco sandals, known for their durability. “I have these extreme shoes to walk the roads,” she said, “and I see people who are barefoot.”
The project started small: each of the 14 trip members planned to donate 10 shoes. For their summertime birthdays, Ginsburg and Presser asked for shoes instead of presents. “I think I just (wanted) to have people come hang out with me and bring me shoes,” Ginsburg said about her 19th birthday in July. “By the end of the day, I had a porch-full.”
Then, volunteers filled bags in their neighborhoods. The small shoe drive quickly became a citywide movement, with drop boxes at all First National Banks and Clover’s Natural Food Stores bringing in more than 3,500 shoes. Although the counting is still under way, more than 2,800 shoes are in good condition and will be sent to Kenya. The unwearable shoes will be recycled.
Shipping a few thousand shoes posed a problem at first. Presser and Ginsburg received $1,770 in donations toward shipping, but it still wasn’t enough. When they called a man about shipping supplies, he put them in contact with George Hutchings of Eagle Wing Ministries in St. Louis. Hutchings has been shipping medical supplies to Kenya since 1999. As it happens, he has $100,000 worth of supplies going out soon, and he offered the extra space in his freight to give the shoes a free ride.
“I think it’s a God thing,” Hutchings said. “We’ll put those shoes right on the container and there they’ll go.”
The African black market was another concern, but Hutchings’ offer provided a solution to that as well; his freight will be met in Kenya and members of his organization will take the shoes directly to the orphanages and clinics for distribution.
Although the young women have been involved in fundraising before, they never expected their shoe drive to be so successful. Presser expressed amazement at how willing everyone was to help, whether by buying new shoes, going through their closet or by spreading the word about the drive.
Ginsburg’s mother, Sharon Ginsburg, said the community reaction was heartwarming. “People who know us say, ‘Is that your daughter doing that?’” she said. “These kids were just rolling and people came alongside them and moved them forward. It’s part of the spirit of the movement.”
She said that as Sarah’s mother, she is especially touched. “It’s a really neat statement of what she is as a young woman,” Sharon Ginsburg said, tearing up. “I can’t wait to see what else she’s going to do.”