“Orphanages in most countries aren’t anything like they are here in the states,” he said.
“I’ve seen children dress themselves for the day from a common pile of tattered clothing, rags by our standards, and they don’t have any shoes. A lot of the time the new shoes we take them are the only thing they can really call their own.”
Drop boxes for gathering donations for the Shoes For Orphan Souls program have been part of the August landscape in Cleveland and Bradley County for 13 years. It’s sponsored and managed globally by Buckner Orphan Care International in Dallas.
Since 1999, Buckner has distributed more than 2.3 million pairs of new shoes and countless thousands of new socks to orphans in 74 countries, including the U.S. and here in East Tennessee.
Gombash explained, “One of the things that drew me to this effort is the fact it’s mostly driven by volunteers. Not everyone can travel overseas to put the shoes actually on the feet of orphans, but a lot of us are able to [do so].” This and volunteers who live near orphanages served by SHOES help ensure that shipments of the new footwear get to and stay with the children.
“It takes people to buy and drop off the new shoes, the local volunteers who re-box it all to get them ready for shipment, as well as people to take them to orphanages to make this happen,” he added.
Gombash listed three reasons why a new pair of shoes is so important to a child:
Most important is disease. Without shoes a child’s foot will develop thick calluses because they must walk everywhere they go. Cracks in the calluses become ports of entry to young bodies for a large variety of pathogens — bacteria, viruses and parasites. A pair of new athletic shoes gives an impoverished child the extra edge he or she may need just to survive.
Second is education. In many impoverished countries “no shoes” means no entry to school. Education is the major factor in breaking the cycle of poverty. Children who learn to read in turn have a family and teach them to read. Access to education can start with a simple pair of shoes.
Last, but very important, is self-esteem and thankfulness. The children who receive new footwear feel less cut off from the world. Volunteers who have traveled with the shoes from the Cleveland area in years past universally report the overwhelming joy the gift of shoes brings. To some children the personal notes of love and encouragement, along with snapshots sent by shoes donors and stuffed down in the shoes, are as precious to the kids as the new footwear itself.
Buckner stipulates that all footwear must be new in order to conform to customs regulations. They report that there are about 145 million orphans worldwide.
“This all happens in August each year,” said Cleveland SHOES volunteer Bobbie Reagan, “so we can repackage and get the shoes and socks down to Dallas so they can get them out to children around the world in time for Christmas.”
In keeping with the local volunteer spirit of this effort, each year a local trucking company, U.S. Express, furnishes for free a tractor-trailer and driver to get the regionally gathered footwear down to Dallas. For the last several years Cleveland area residents have helped to completely fill a large semi-trailer.
Collections began in Bradley County in 2001 when a local church, Westwood Baptist, became the first drop location.
To be a part of the SHOES program all you have to do is go to a local shoe or department store and purchase new footwear, then drop them into a collection box at one of the drop locations listed below. New shoes, boots, socks and shoelaces are needed for children from birth to age 18, but sturdy athletic type shoes are the best.
“Don’t forget to include a personal note of care and encouragement,” quipped Dave Whitaker, a local volunteer. “Stuff it well down into the shoe or securely attach it in some way.”
Drop locations for new footwear in and around Cleveland are:
Baptist Association of Benton, Cherokee Pharmacy, Cleveland Daily Banner, First Baptist, Goldman Chiropractic, Homestead Lawn & Tractor, Journey Church, Living Word Church, Lucky’s Bargan Barn, Lucky’s Feed & Farm, Massengill Tire (all locations), New Liberty Baptist, North Cleveland Church of God, Ocoee Utilities, OK Tire, Salon Bella, Shiloh Baptist, Smyrna Baptist, Southern Heritage Bank (all locations), Spring Creek Apartments, SunTrust Bank, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union (both locations), Toyota of Cleveland, Washington Avenue Church, Westwood Baptist, Whirlpool (factory) and YMCA.