Usually when we do a distribution the group is predetermined, but we don’t know sizes before we go – most of these people have never been sized before, and aren’t even used to properly fitting shoes (they prefer them really tight because they’re used to wearing shoes long after they’ve grown out of them, undersized shoes are all they know). When people come into our shop in New York and don’t know their size it can be frustrating – but in this world, there’s no reason to know your size, they’ve never bought a pair of shoes before.
They come in small groups, huddled together and uncertain. Mostly wearing flip flops – many worn through with golf ball sized holes in the heels, they curve up on both ends – or shoes that look like athletic inspired dress shoes from companies without names – soles split all the way through, threads spreading and frayed. They take off their shoes and peel off their socks and stand with one of our representative to get sized. They’re so excited that they can’t figure out which way to stand, through laughter and high fives they’re directed properly and we write their sizes on their hands in marker. Next they go over to the washing station and get their feet washed.
Initially I was convinced it was a New Testament thing, but Soles4Souls is non-secular, and despite the intimate spiritual implications (regardless of religion) it’s purely pragmatic. They come in having worn the same shoes for months, if not years, their feet fit to their shoes and vice versa. Walking through the dirt and dust kicks a mess up on them. It would be a shame to make the new shoes dirty on first wear, so we clean their feet first. Karin mentioned that while washing them you can feel the contours that their feet have developed. And when you compare the map of their foot to their shoe you see they fit together perfectly. The ridges match the splits, the callouses match the holes. Once washed, they’re brought over for sizing wherein we get their size and have them put them on.
As is traditional for a Ronnie Fieg shoe, there are a few lace options and the kids hardly know what to do with them. But once they realize they can customize the way their new shoes look, they grab them like treasure. At first they don’t know whether to accept them or not but once they wise up they ask for more. The split tongue throws them off too, but it’s actually good for them. Having shoes without support means that some of their feet have developed in ways that aren’t that healthy – super high arches, or overly wide. The split tongue allows for molding to their feet resulting in a more comfortable shoe.
Some are ashamed of the shoes they walked in with. Leaving them behind and feigning confusion when we ask them if they want their old shoes back. One kid came in with sneakers whose toe box had been completely worn off. I tried to get a picture, but he refused to be documented with them – then took them away with him so I couldn’t take a picture of just the shoes. Perhaps the most healing that we’re able to do is offer a new piece of their realities that they can live without shame.
The kids we get shoes on and help aren’t the only people who come to see us. When word gets around what we’re doing, many more come than were anticipated. They crowd around the doors and gates, peering in through the windows, reaching hands and arms in yelling in Creole. They don’t yell at us, and they don’t yell out of anger – it’s excitement and impatience. They just want new shoes. They need new shoes. But they won’t get them from us today – we just don’t have enough. Buddy, the CEO of Soles4Souls who has brought his family with us on this trip is disheartened to remember that the aid we’ve extended is merely a “drop in a bucket.” There’s a lot more work to do.