Where did your feet take you today? Mine padded across my apartment, into my work shoes, out to the pavement and onto the subway. There was more pavement, and then a carpeted office. Maybe, if I'm lucky, they'll later take me to a bar, a club, a movie. This mundane route is actually a revival of one I took before I left for Cambodia to volunteer. It feels different now, because before, each step I used to take I felt connected to my feet, when in reality, they never even touched the streets at all. In that sense, I was never truly grounded: never connected to the earth, never connected to anything. So, on this morning commute did my feet actually take me anywhere at all? Did they touch the world; did they really choose my path? My answer after my time abroad is no.
I was protected by the barrier of my shoes and my routine. In New York City, trash is strewn about, vomit, discarded food containers and dog shit. And though I walked those avenues every day, my feet did not touch them. For that, I was less thankful than I was complacent. I mean, who even thinks about such things as gratitude for shoes when living in New York? I did have the sense to notice that when I was barefoot, it was special; in sands, thick grass or plush rugs. To be barefoot meant a privilege--a sacred thing reserved for vacations and safe spaces. Then, and only then, was when I was truly connected to my steps, my path, my feet and the imprints they left as I made my way.
Perhaps this is your experience too. You walk from place to space, your shoes carrying you all the way. Protected and safe. But what if they took you somewhere else? To a prison, to a war zone, into a burning garbage dump? And what if you didn't have shoes? And had to navigate your scorched soles through piles of glass, syringes, and toxic waste?
In the documentary short Next Steps, a group of 'slumdog' Khmer children--those living shoeless on toxic garbage dumps to forage for food--are asked, "What's the best thing you've ever found?"
The kids alight, their sooty faces grinning, and then shout, "Plastic!"
"And the worst?" Probes an off-screen speaker. For this, the kids are quieter, unsmiling.
Finally one answers.
"A dead baby."
This film, one of many documenting the plight of destitute populations living off garbage in Cambodia, Nicaragua, Romania, Guatemala and more, is a devastating look into the mission of the Small Steps Project, headed by Amy Hanson: reformed celebrity reporter with a closet full of Louboutins-turned philanthropist and that voice off-screen. Peruse the many short films, testimonials and pictures on the charity's site, and see a post-apocalyptic world where children roam in rags, eating and collecting trash all the while choking back thick black smoke from tire fires and other blazes. Their parents, if they have any, are impoverished and considered societal misfits: suffering from alcoholism or HIV, and have found a home here because there is literally no other place for them to go. The dumps are more attractive than the streets: they provide a community of sorts, sometimes with organized chiefs of modern tribes, and the influx of garbage trucks provides a consistent and reliable deluge of material to sort through.
Sometimes the parents have jobs within these tribes as collectors. Other times? The parents stay inside their trash shanties all day, drunk. Inside their homes fashioned from plastic beams and vinyl beer adverts, drawing stagnant water from a sulfur-stinking pool. In those cases, and in the case of abandonment, it's the children as young as four who trudge forth with two-foot-long metal hooks--instruments better suited for medieval torture than trash collection. They do not go to school. They do not see anyone outside their dump community. They do not know of a way out; they cannot comprehend another life. Their feet take them nowhere, and they are connected deeply to their lot in life, physically and psychologically. More than you and I, they are connected to what this earth has become.
Before I met Amy this year in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, I wanted to help heal the world, but I was overwhelmed. Even paralyzed at times. There were too many options, too many people in need. I was just one person, with limited resources. How to choose anything: a country, an epidemic, a cause? I took a leave of absence from my job for three months, in no small part to my mentor's shocking death and my realization that those who seemingly have it all can end up in a headspace where they believe they have nothing at the end. But was three months even enough time? Would I make a lasting impact? Or would it just be a speck in the overall scheme of things? I was too protected by my shoes, and my small world, to really understand what I was doing, and why.
But there was something about Amy. There was something about the name Small Steps. And there was something about their mission that put it all into sharp relief:
Small Steps aims to put shoes on the children across the world that live on trash dumps. Small Steps is unique in its way because of its shoe-based efforts and two-pronged plan of action. Stage one is to get shoes on the feet of the kids in the dump so they are no longer standing in glass, animal remains and raw sewage and give them immediate aid in food, medical supplies and other necessities. Stage two is to empower the dump-living community with the tools to relocate: transportation, job placement, and other expansion efforts.
Naturally, there are many implications and hurdles in solving this problem at one dump, let alone across several countries and cities. The first problem is: no one on the dump wants to leave it. It's their home, after all. And their livelihood, however insufficient. The second is with unemployable parents, the children more or less follow the same path. Without school, without outsiders, without skills that could be translatable, the kids are often painfully shy or terribly ashamed of their soil and their smell. There is poor and then there is a child who roams barefoot on a garbage dump. Among the economic hierarchy, there is a difference and that difference is palpable when interacting with them. They ask for nothing, they avert their eyes. Their smiles emerge faintly when joked and played with and then are gone instantly as they gauge your reaction. Are you here to help or to hurt? And how are you going to help anyway?
But it's about starting small to get big results. As Amy says "Sometimes poverty feels like such a big problem that what you do to help or donate feels like a drop in the ocean and you can't tell what impact it has. But if everyone takes a small step, the impact is huge."
The idea of mattering to just one is at the heart of successful philanthropic movements.
When faced with the question of why volunteering or donating matters, at any step or stage, I think of this.
This is a mantra that may ring true for those who, like me, had not yet heard.
If it matters to just one person, you have actually changed the world.
Especially if, like Small Steps, you concentrate on global projects, like showing documentaries at Glastonbury (June 26-30) documentaries about their efforts across the world, including Cambodia, Nicaragua and India with expansion plans for Romania, Laos, Guatemala and Africa. Or auction shoes from the likes of Ben Stiller, Morgan Freeman, Coldplay and The Rolling Stones, who are donating the shoes they perform in at Glastonbury to the cause.
This is how Amy starts small to get big results. Today it's shoes, tomorrow water filtration, next week, nurseries and Mommy programs that employ parents within schools and centers. Expansions, outreach programs, investors, celebrity philanthropists and world tours are just some of the many paths Amy is spearheading to bring Small Steps to a truly global scale.
Through my work with Amy, I met mothers and children affected. Beautiful children, dark-complected with almond eyes, whose smiles can light up a life, let alone a room. We fed them, we played hand-slapping games, we took them to the beach for the first time in their short lives.
There the kids learned to swim in our arms. Stripped down to their underwear, and others naked, there was no shame among them; they had lost any they had long ago. Shame is life to them.
They screamed in the ocean, they squealed. The burnt rubber smell left their skin. Some whose skin was very dark in the morning is lighter now, more attractive according to Cambodian culture. With the dump washed away temporarily, they transformed into flashing beacons. Their initial shyness fell away, they smiled, they played, and they pretended to sneak up on us. They took turns with water goggles, undone by the luxury of this, the most magic piece of plastic they have ever encountered. They don't have to trade this one in. And they are considerate with one another, gentle. Passing the goggles around and showing each other the truth beyond what they ever imagines. They are not in fire, they are in water. And in the water, they can see.
The children come to school with us. They are fed more rice then they have seen, bits of sweet egg, garlicky morning glory, fish heads with the flesh still on. There are toys, there are bathrooms. They shower and then stand naked together, as we dry them. We wrap them in big red towels and hold them close. We comb the lice from their hair. Gently. One girl with hair cascading down her back waits with a blissful smile on her face as I take a half hour to turn her tangles back into strands of silk. I hold a section with one hand away from her scalp so that when I attack the knots she won't feel the rip. The first time I do it she looks at me in shock. She is not used to getting her hair brushed. And certainly without yanking the hair from her head. She sits still and watches the other girls watch her. She winks at them, and when I am done she bows to me.
I try to bow back, and she runs away. But when I see her later she hooks her arms through mine. Another wants to borrow my sunglasses. Her brother has a mouthful of rice that spills from his mouth in delight at a joke known only to him. A girl of three bursts into giggles when I pretend her tiny new shoes, given to her by Small Steps, are mine and I walk away like an elephant in them, strutting like a beast on a runway. In turn, she steps into mine and models for me, my moccasins slapping against the dirt floor in huge comic effect, until she reaches me, wraps her twiggish arms around me, hugs me and doesn't let go until I pry her off and bring her back to her mother.
She abandons my shoes, as she is more comfortable barefoot in the safety away from the dump. And that day, when I left the school, I left mine too. I walked back to the volunteer house in the sidewalk-melting sun. I stepped in pools of stagnant water. I cut my feet on glass. I tended to my wounds in my hotbox room with swipes of stolen paper napkins from restaurants and a foul-smelling salve I'd come to rely on for everything from sprains to headaches. After a few weeks of this, my soles became yellow and black: hard and strong, like slabs of rocks. And with each step, I felt the ground beneath me; I felt my feet carry me instead of the other way around. I began to run faster and lighter. My toenails turned black and my feet became my own protection from the elements. It was against the rules to be shoeless at the NGO where I worked, and of course at the trash dump that Small Steps serviced during my time there, because it was so dangerous. But whenever I could, I was without them. I wanted to feel everything beneath me, my path. I wanted to feel where I was going.
Now, back in my New York office months later, my feet have softened, my nails pretty once again, my soles pink as I am compelled to wear shoes like everyone else or face reprimand from HR. It feels like a personal failure. Under my desk, in meetings, and whenever I can, especially outside, I take them off. It aligns me with my time away; it reminds me of the kids who do not have them. And it lets me dream about where my moccasins are today, months after being left in Cambodia. If someone has taken them. If they are protecting someone else. Someone who needs protecting far more than me.
And as for my thoughts on the world and how we can change it; I've come to this. Giving is an endlessly replenishing resource. The more we seek, the more we find. This trip to Cambodia for me was something, but not nearly enough. I'm currently speaking to Amy about a Canadian fire truck convoy to deliver supplies to slumdog children in need in Nicaragua. And Guatemala. And anything else I can do. Because it really doesn't matter if I have shoes or not, as long as I am connected to my path.
To donate to Small Steps, please visit here.
To purchase Glastonbury tickets and for more general information, click here.