The volunteers of Shoes for Orphan Souls are praying Cleveland residents will donate a pair of new athletic shoes and alter an orphan’s life.
“In many places in this world, if you do not own a pair of shoes then you cannot go to school,” said Keith Gombash, volunteer. “Without being able to go to school there is no education. Without the education they are stuck in a circle of poverty. A lot of poverty is associated with a lack of education.”
Drop boxes, signs, and news articles have been used to promote the August drive for shoes. The picture of a shoe with a halo overhead can be seen on most street corners in Cleveland. Donated shoes will be instrumental in providing for the needs of orphans worldwide. Missionaries and volunteers will distribute them over the next several months.
“The children and families knew when we were coming,” said Kathryn Ervin, volunteer. “The word gets out that these people are providing shoes and then a lot of needy people show up. Which means we need to give more.”
It is difficult to believe one purchase can drastically change a life. Volunteers Sonya Ownbey, Kathryn Ervin, and Gombash realize most people do not understand the impact. For $25.99 or less a child can attend school. He or she can gain an education that has the potential to raise one from poverty.
“Children cannot attend school without shoes because it is a matter of sanitation,” Gombash said. “These shoes are a 3/4-inch barrier against disease. We are protecting them against disease.”
Ownbey, Ervin, and Gombash share horror stories concerning what orphans face. Jagged rocks, broken glass, and shoes made out of flattened plastic bottles fill their tales.
“The grass you have in other countries is like walking in a rock pit,” Gombash said. “Its not like walking through our front yards. ... The sewage situation is awful ... They build up callouses and those callouses crack. Inside of these cracks they get infected. They are walking upon feces that have been strewn everywhere.”
According to the volunteers, the situation sounds extreme because it is extreme. One of the most exciting aspects for the volunteers is they can make a difference.
The three volunteers did not know each other before becoming involved in Shoes for Orphan Souls. They heard about the program through WMBW 88.9 Moody Radio. It was only fitting, as the program initially began with a radio station in Dallas.
The Shoes program began as a partnership between KCBI Radio in Dallas and Children’s HopeChest in 1995. The original name was, “Shoes for Russian Souls.” The program collected 5,000 pairs of new shoes the first year benefiting Russian Orphans. The radio station was collecting more shoes than it could manage by 1999. Buckner Orphan Care International took over the program and collections soared to 20,000 pairs of new shoes.
Collections have continued to rise since 1999. More than 2.3 million pairs of shoes and hundreds of thousands of socks have been sent to orphans in 74 countries, including the United States.
“We are only scratching the surface,” Gombash said.
According to reports by UNICEF, there were more than 132 million orphans worldwide in 2010. The large demand for shoes has brought numerous churches, organizations, and partners into the program. Ownbey, Ervin, and Gombash are calling for more people to join the movement. They want to close the gap between shoes collected and children in need.
“This one kid came up to me and shook my hand,” Gombash said. “In humility he would not even look at me. Without meeting my eyes he said, ‘Sir, I want to thank you for bringing me a pair of shoes. I did not have a pair of shoes and now I can go to school.’”
Stories like this tug at Gombash and encourage him to keep volunteering. He and his wife have traveled to Africa twice and will likely return in the future.
“This child is about 4 years old,” Gombash said, pointing to a small boy in a picture. “He is wearing pink and gray shoes. Those were the only pair that would fit him and he was so excited. He did not care about the color. He was going around sticking out his feet and saying, ‘Look at my shoes! Look at my shoes!’”
Ownbey said adults in other countries understand what a pair of shoes can mean for a child. Some will mark a larger size than is needed in hopes of keeping their child in school longer.
“I took off this little girl’s shoes, which, you know, were just scraps by this time. I realized the size marked down for her was three or four times larger than her foot ... The shoe they wanted me to give this little, bitty girl was literally slipping off of her feet,” Ownbey said.
Ownbey used a translator to explain the situation to the parents. As a registered nurse, Ownbey knew the child could seriously injure herself walking around in the large shoes. The parents were not happy with the news.
“That day the little girl didn’t get any shoes, but all the kids around her did. Her parents, out of their desperation to make sure she could go to school for the next several years, asked for too large of shoes. I walked away and bawled my eyes out,” Ownbey said.
The experience is more than just a chance to give a child an education, Ownbey said. The volunteers agree their time with the children is personal and life touching. According to Gombash, he turns into a human jungle gym with eight kids hanging off him at a time. Ownbey sees the trips as an opportunity to share God’s love and story.
“Every pair of shoes represents an opportunity to share the gospel with children that may have never head about Jesus,” Ownbey said. “It is about protecting their feet and helping them receive an education, but it is also about sharing the gospel.”
Ervin and Ownbey met while on the Shoes for Souls mission trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, last fall. The two began talking in the airport and ended up rooming together for the next week.
“We gave out over 793 pairs of shoes,” Ownbey said.
Inserted Ervin, “That is a lot of feet to wash.”
The two ladies said returning participants of the trip noticed a difference in the feet of the children.
“We heard some of the children’s feet would be stuck to the inside of the shoes and their heels were all messed up for the first trip,” Ownbey said.
The notable difference is due in large part to Buckner Orphan Care International’s lessons on hygiene, said the volunteers. Parents, caregivers, and children are taught proper footcare. According to Ownbey, the best shoes to give orphans are athletic shoes.
“The canvas ones are nice, but after 60 miles of the terrain they walk over, they begin to fall apart,” Ownbey said.
The three volunteers talk of the program as if it is their life’s mission. Gombash said, while holding up a picture of an orphan, “When I grow up, this is what I want to do. Give shoes to orphans.”
There are many dropoff locations in Cleveland, including Cleveland Daily Banner, Cleveland Battery, Southern Heritage Bank, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit union, Shoe Show, Larry Hill Ford & Imports, Cherokee Pharmacy, Captain D’s of Cleveland, YMCA of Cleveland, Toyota of Cleveland, Homestead Lawn & Tractor, Gray Epperson Mazda, Whirlpool Cleveland Division, White Wing Christian Book Store, and several churches.
For more information, contact Keith Gombash at 774-8324.