We pulled on to the dirt lane. You couldn't see the entrance to the school from the sea of little people. The line of children was easily two hundred deep. They were here for shoes.
I tried to think of a single thing that I would wait behind two hundred people to do. Besides waiting behind two hundred people to meet the members of Rush, I couldn't think of a single thing. No one else, no article of clothing, or no morel mushroom-rubbed tenderloin would be enough to make me wait behind two hundred people.
Yet here they were. Most of them were barefoot. Some had clothes, and some didn't. They were some of the poorest souls I'd ever seen.
Actually, let me rephrase that: they were some of the financially poorest souls I'd ever seen. On the humanity scale, however, these kids got it. They knew they were receiving a necessity, free, from people who actually cared. To these kids, it was like Christmas morning, with Wayne Elsey, Todd Newton and the Eco-missionaries from Soles4Souls acting as Santa Claus and some shockingly tall elves.
When Wayne watched the Asian tsunami unfold in front of his eyes, he could not have imagined the impact it would eventually have. Six years later, on this day, he and his cohorts were close to giving away around twenty-three million pairs. It was remarkable.
We were an hour and change later than we were supposed to arrive thanks to our breakdown from the last blog, but no one seemed to care. There was an electricity in the air that you only feel certain places on earth. I took out my camera, and every one of these kids started hamming it up. They really got a kick out of it when I took the viewfinder and turned it around so they could see themselves.
Some kids smiled and marveled at the technology. One kid started doing karate chops and kicks. One challenged Todd to a boxing match. Todd lasted about a round, and it was way more entertaining than Mayweather/Pacquiao, but I digress.
Before the main event, all of the children had their feet measured. The number was then written on the back of their hand with washable marker. When the children sat down, it was easy for the missionaries to see the number, and then run to grab a pair the exact size, or as close to size as they had.
All of these shoes were new, donated by shoe companies. According to the kids faces, they rated anywhere between Badass and Meh on the "Cool" scale, which showed me that even though every single one of these kids was thankful, they still coveted sweet kicks. And who could blame them?
As the camera rolled, I watched in awe as Todd and some of the volunteers took care of these children. I had never seen such raw compassion stare me in the face...or in this case, the viewfinder. Todd looked up at me.
"Danny, do you want to try this?"
"You need to."
And with that, Todd took my camera and started filming me. He had no idea that he would capture the moment that would change my life.
It's quite a biblical experience giving shoes to a kid. They come and sit down in front of you. You then wash their feet, much like Jesus did at the Last Supper. After you wash them, you dry them, and you make sure that their heels are on the top of your shoes so that they don't get dirty again. You are then handed a pair of socks to put on their feet, and lastly, you put their shoes on them, tying them if they have laces.
So after I gave one little boy a pair of shoes, he got up, and a nine year old girl sat down in front of me. I took her feet and washed them in the basin between us. I dried them, and made sure that her heels were resting on the top of my hiking boots. Then, I was handed a pair of socks which I put on her feet. And then, I was handed a pair of black, closed-toed shoes, and they were at least three sizes too big.
When I put them on her feet, everyone cheered behind me. I had no clue why.
If you've been reading this series, then you know how shoes can be life savers, especially for those who work or live in harsh, unsanitary conditions. A pair of shoes is sometimes the only thing between a cut on a foot and a fatal infection. However, I was about to find out that shoes can also be life changers.
I knew that the cheering had nothing to do with me, so I asked them what just happened. Their answer floored me.
At this school, there was no tuition payment, because in reality, there is no money. However, they have to keep the children safe, and keep the conditions as sanitary as possible. So in order to get the uniform and books to be able to go to school, you needed one thing: a pair of black, closed-toed shoes. And because these shoes were three sizes too big, she would be able to go to school for the next three years.
Just let that sink in for a second. She was able to go to school, for three years, because of one pair of shoes.
And God bless the poor girl, they were the ugliest shoes she would probably ever own. She didn't quite realize that the seeds of her future plans to become a doctor or a lawyer or President of Haiti may have just been planted. It was then that the full weight of what we were doing there hit me all at once. I had just witnessed a miracle, and actual living, breathing, walking miracle. It would be an image that would never leave me.
I walked outside to grab the camera back from Todd, thanking him up and down under the bed for letting me have that experience. We were able to spend the next twenty minutes just playing with the kids. Many used Todd as a human Jungle-Gym. Wayne played his patented Gimme Five, Up High, Down Low. The kids loved it.
We also filmed a little Q and A interview between the two, and Todd asked Wayne, "I know that the earthquake magnitude was enormous, but why was this country so destroyed?"
Wayne said, "You can see it right here."
He motioned for us to come to a pile of building materials stacked up, waiting to be used. "What do you notice about these cinder blocks?" Wayne asked.
"They're not really gray," I said.
"Right. Cinder blocks have a specific ratio of water to sand. Here, they're homemade and they use more sand in the mix because it's cheaper, but they're not nearly as strong. That's why the buildings came down."
And the quake was an equal opportunity offender. Not just small buildings were affected. The presidential palace effectively collapsed onto itself. A 7.0 magnitude is enough to crumple the strongest of buildings. Imagine what this big bad wolf did to a bunch of houses effectively made out of straw and sticks.
After saying goodbye to the kids, we had one more stop before calling it a day.
"Never trust a Haitian dog." Annie, our amazing guide, told me this on day one. It was now echoing in my ears as I washed the Thanksgiving-sized pile of canine poo from the bottom of my boot. He was a resident at the rec center which no longer had a roof. Thanks, earthquake. Oh, and thanks for the present, Rover.
This place had a basketball court, class rooms, and common areas, and at the moment, was in the slow, arduous process of being rebuilt. It had so much potential that had yet to be realized. It was so close, and so, so far away. It seemed like a metaphor for the country.
After seeing so many places like this one, destroyed for two years with only a modicum of rebuilding, I started feeling numb to it all, like it was never going to get any better. I asked Wayne how he could stay so positive in the midst of such destruction.
It's the people. Look around. They know what they have, they know how they live, and they still have hope. We're here to give them a hand up, not a hand out. You saw it earlier with that girl who can now go to school. We were able to give her a tool that can help her change her life. It's give a man a fish, teach a man to fish. We're making a dent. And with their hope, they're the ones keeping us going.
And all I could think of was what he told a me a day earlier in the market in Port Au Prince, words that will stay with me until my dying day.
"My only competition...is time."