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Used shoes take giant steps in poor countries

Mona Purdy, a Chicago hairdresser who founded the charity Share Your Soles, has seen firsthand what a pair of used shoes can do to change the lives of poor children.
Image: Mona Purdy straightens rows of shoes
Mona Purdy, founder and executive director of Share Your Soles, straightens rows of shoes at her warehouse in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, Ill., on Nov. 5. Frank Polich / Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

Mona Purdy, a Chicago hairdresser, has seen what a pair of used shoes can do to change the lives of poor children.

At a Jamaican orphanage, girls suffering from deformities and burns couldn't believe the shoes Purdy had given them were theirs to keep.

"They had not had Christmas, ever. Christmas was giving them these used shoes in March," said Purdy, the founder of the charity, Share Your Soles, her voice cracking with emotion.

"I'm thinking, 'I shouldn't be here. I should be home with my kids.' After I saw these kids I realized I am so supposed to be here."

The impetus for the charity began 10 years ago when Purdy participated in a race in Guatemala, where local children put hot tar on the bottom of their feet and ran along the side of rocky course.

It was fortified when she learned that in many countries having shoes is a prerequisite for attending schools, and how walking in bare feet can cause injuries and infections that can lead to amputation.

"It blew my mind. I didn't know kids didn't have shoes anywhere," said Purdy, a divorced mother of three, recalling what led her to start the charity in her suburban Chicago home.

Sandals to gym shoes
With more and more shoes being donated, it later moved to bigger warehouses and expanded to more countries with the help of donated space and shipping.

Now volunteers from all walks of life help sort the footwear that arrives in bags, boxes and barrels at the 400,000-square-foot warehouse in Alsip, Ill., from shoe drives and drop-off centers across the U.S.

Elegant sandals, sturdy hiking boots, gym shoes and tiny baby shoes are cleaned or polished and sent to countries such as Uganda, Peru and Lithuania.

"If you see anything that you have to think twice about throw it out," Purdy told high school volunteers recently, emphazing the importance of respecting the dignity of the shoe recipients.

The students are taught to sort the footwear — snow boots go to American Indian reservations in South Dakota, rubber boots are destined for people scavenging garbage dumps in Haiti and slip-on water shoes are headed for the Amazon.

Soccer cleats go everywhere.

"I'm trying to teach these kids that if you do something small you won't save someone's life, but you can change someone's life," Purdy said.

Taking baby steps
Collecting and distributing 900,000 pairs of used shoes over the past decade has changed Purdy's life. She is now the executive director of a charity which has no religious or government affiliation and has helped the needy in at least 29 countries and several U.S. states.

She has resorted to bribes in some countries to ensure the shoes aren't sold, been infected with parasites and suffered from fevers. But whatever adversity she encountered, it has been diminished by the joy she witnessed.

At an all-boys orphanage in Ecuador, even a mismarked box of girls shoes was welcomed.

"The boys were so happy that they got some shoes even though they were little girls' leather school shoes. Some had straps and little bows on them," she explained.

With the 10-year anniversary of Share Your Soles behind her, Purdy would like to become a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. She also wants to apply for federal grants to bolster the charity's $975,000 annual budget.

"It might begin with shoes," she said. "But it doesn't end there."