"Dan, I'm leaving Soles4Souls, and you had something to do with it." I almost coughed up a spleen when Wayne Elsey dropped this bombshell, two months after we last saw each other.
Our last day in Haiti was a mix of sadness and relief. I was very much looking forward to getting home to see Stephanie and our boys, Sam and Ben, but I was also going to miss this country, and especially the people. When I first arrived in Haiti, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know if we would be accepted or reviled, and I wondered if I would find myself in the midst of hell on earth.
I'm not going to lie: Part of it was hell. The condition of the tent cities and the ever present gray waste-water throughout Port Au Prince, not to mention the pungency of the piles of trash, were a startling reminder of what these people lived with, and through, every day.
What I did not expect, however, was how happy the majority of people I met seemed to be. This was not a dour population waiting for the other shoe to drop. This was a predominantly happy community. There was a tremendous amount laughter, even in the midst of what any western culture would consider unimaginable poverty.
And by far, the happiest collective group of individuals were the children, many of whom had lost everything in the tragic earthquake just two years prior... even their parents. They had such an infectious sparkle about them, and every kindness given to them was received with humble gratitude. I have rarely seen the sheer joy that they felt when the Soles4Souls eco-missionaries presented them with enough soccer balls so that each kid could have his or her own. You could have given them each an X-BOX 360 and it wouldn't have meant any more to them. Being used to my own way of life, it was immensely refreshing.
Many of the local kids who I met were my son Sam's age now, around 9 or 10. Looking back, as I compare the two, I realize that even though the American kiddos have so much more support in regards to family, possessions, and even sanitation, they are not happier.
I noticed that there didn't seem to be the same level of intense peer pressure at the orphanage as there is in our local school. The Haitian kids did not have the same issues as American kids, and in a way, they were lucky. They had their own problems; they didn't want ours.
"Excuse me? You're kidding, right?" I asked Wayne.
"Not kidding at all," he said.
When I arrived home from Haiti, I was on fire to help Soles4Souls and all of the amazing people I met. I reached out to Sam's principal and asked if I could hold a shoe drive at our school. After a resounding "yes," we collected 750 pairs, boxed them, and even drove them up to Chicago, our nearest distribution city. We were forced to spend a night in the city, but we sacrificed for the team.
And now... Wayne was leaving.
"What do you mean I had something to do with it?" I asked.
"I watched you and Todd with your family, and I realized I didn't have that. My daughter is 21, and I never saw her grow up," he said.
Every single night at 8:30 p.m. St. Louis time, I would leave the dinner table to Skype with Steph, Sam and Ben. It didn't matter if I hadn't ordered, or if the food just arrived hot, I would not miss my nightly Skype. In the same fashion, Todd Newton talked to his kids on the phone every single day. Wayne was seeing the regret of his life being played out right in front of his eyes, and he finally said, "enough."
"I want to try build what you guys already have with your families," he said. "And I like you guys. I want to help you and the Half Fund, and I have an idea how to do it."
The Half Fund is our mission to help artists tell stories about cancer through books and music and movies... anything that is commercially viable. And any artist who gets money from us has to split all of their net profits in half: Half to any cancer charity of their choice, and half comes back to the Half Fund where it's given away again. In a sense, it's a self-regenerating trust.
And apparently, he wanted to help us. Bonus!
Wayne had a crazy idea that I didn't quite even understand at first. Simply, if you ran a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, you could host shoe drives. The shoes would be picked up and shipped to places like Haiti and Guatemala to support micro-enterprise efforts in those countries. You would also get paid a fee for each pound of shoes you collected.
The math was simple. On average, you can fit 25 pairs of shoes in a black garbage bag. By weight, each bag is worth about $10 to your not-for-profit. If you collect ten bags, it's worth $100. Collect 300 bags, and your organization gets $3,000.
"Can any not-for-profit do this?" I asked.
"An unlimited amount of times?"
True to his word, we have had several shoe drives in the past three years, and they have netted us in excess of $15,000. In fact, the lady who inspired this series of blogs, my dear friend Meg, is hosting a shoe drive at her parish as you read this, Our Lady of Lourdes. Last year, they raised 1,600 pairs of shoes. This year, they're trying to beat it. It's beyond remarkable.
But what makes this even more amazing is that collecting shoes actually benefits the world in five ways.
1. Each year in the United States alone, 300 million pairs of shoes are simply thrown away, ending up in landfills. Imagine what could happen if even a fraction of them ended up in these countries? And before you ask, gently used shoes are preferable, but all shoes are welcome. Blowing through the toe in those running shoes? In Haiti, they take the soles and create bicycle brakes and flooring out of them. With the uppers, they cut letters and numbers out of them to use as literacy tools.
Bet you never look at those shoes the same way again. This is the ultimate way to re-use and recycle.
2. Shoes are currency. In countries like Haiti, money is scarce. In many cases, bartering is the preferred form of currency. In some cases, it's a matter of life and death. A few months before we visited, a local woman traded a pair of Nike running shoes for a goat because she was too malnourished to breastfeed her baby.
3. Shoes save lives. In some cases, they are the only barrier between a cut foot and chronic, if not fatal diseases.
4. The average person in this country owns 12 pairs of shoes. Imagine if you took five pairs, the five you never wear, and donated them. And then say that each person in a four person house did that. And just say that for each house of 20 pairs, they got nine more houses to do the same. That's 400 pairs just from ten houses. And just say you did this to benefit a homeless shelter, or a home for battered women, or a food pantry, or an elderly hospice clinic. Those 400 pairs alone are worth $160.
And then, what if just ten people did the same? Tell me that a food pantry couldn't use $1,600, or a homeless shelter couldn't use $1600.
The sky is absolutely the limit.
5. It allows everyone... everyone... to contribute to making the world a better place. Because even though our economy may be recovering, many of us don't have the resources to open our wallet to help those in need.
But we all have shoes. Every single one of us can participate. Kids can hold one at their school. Employees can hold one at their office. Our dear friend Jen held one for us at Edward Jones one summer. By the time all was said and done, she collected over 2000 pairs for us.
Imagine what a city-wide shoe drive could do?
I only had the privilege of spending 68 hours in Haiti, but a part of my heart will live there forever. I can never thank Todd Newton enough for thinking of me for this trip, and I will never be able to thank Wayne enough for ultimately changing my life with his example of "Getting off the couch and doing something" when he saw a single child's shoe wash up on the shore during the 2004 Asian tsunami. He showed me that one person married with the support of an army can change the world.
So the next time you open your closet and you see a pair or two that you don't wear anymore, set them aside. Do the same with your family members. And then your friends. And then their family and friends. Start the wheels in motion. Change the world.
It is easier than you think.
For more information on how you can receive materials for your own shoe drives, from bags to marketing tools, please visit www.funds2orgs.com.