More Than Shoes on Feet

Recently I told you about TOMS Shoes and the innovative business model they've built, which includes a commitment from Blake Mycoskie, (the company's founder) to give away a pair of shoes to a needy person somewhere in the world for every pair you buy. I had the chance to witness this process firsthand as TOMS gave away their one millionth pair of shoes on a September trip in Argentina. As I promised, I'd now like to share with you the actual experience of being along on one of these shoe drops...

We were staying in the Misiones region in the far northeast corner of Argentina near Paraguay. We were housed in an environmentally conscious lodge in the middle of the jungle whose proprietors were environmental experts and conservationists. The Yacutinga Lodge had been built to educate visitors about the jungle around them. It wasn't a "hotel," as the owners were quick and clear in pointing out. There was no phone, no internet, and sometimes no electricity. But without these usual trappings of 21st century life, we had the opportunity to focus on the experience we were about to have.

From the lodge, our large group took an open air caravan truck on a bumpy dust-filled 30 minute ride into a small village area. From there, we transferred into two vans that would take our group to our destination for the day. On this particular day we were headed to the area of San Pedro where we would do three separate shoe drops.

When our vans pulled up to the first village, a sea of children came into view. They were lining the porches of the two houses in the center of the village. We looked out and saw their eager faces looking expectantly at us. As we came out of the van, we greeted the children. Embracing them and beginning to talk with them, the team quickly unloaded boxes and boxes of shoes. We organized the shoes by size, setting up an assembly line and beginning to fit each child. Often we'd make two or three trips back to the shoe boxes before we found a good fit. Not being a veteran shoe-fitter myself, it was a bit stressful running back and forth, trying to get each shoe to fit just right be a shoe-fitter. But when the shoe finally fit, you couldn't help but smile ear to ear, as the child walked off in the comfort and safety of a much needed pair of shoes.

I was having some trouble putting the shoes on the feet of a little girl, who couldn't have been older than 5 or 6 years old. I looked up at her face to see a rather blank expression. As I struggled to fit the shoe on her foot, I realized she couldn't help me get the shoe on because she had never had a pair of shoes, and so she didn't know how to put them on. In America we have extreme poverty, but even the poorest of poor have at least one pair of shoes. Many of these children had literally never worn a pair of shoes in their life. Over the course of our week-long trip we gave hundreds of children their first pair of shoes.

Equally important as actually putting the shoes on their feet, was the time we spent playing with the children after we finished giving out the shoes. In this village, there was a little boy with a red shirt, who came up to me and tugged on my shirt. As I turned around I caught his eye and he grabbed my hand. Then I spun him around and around, to his utter delight. He wanted me to spin him again and again. He was laughing and beaming, as if to say "do it again! Do it again!" We couldn't get his name, he couldn't quite speak to us, when we asked him his name in Spanish and English, he only grinned, with his eyes widening, giving a look that will stick with me forever. A face of pure happiness and joy, in the midst of deep poverty.

As the van pulled out and headed down the road to leave, that little boy in the red shirt ran halfway down the road alongside the van, beaming the whole time. It was sad to leave him and all the other children behind, knowing that a day like this day would be an exception -- perhaps a once in a lifetime experience for them. While we felt good that TOMS had provided them with shoes and that we had had the opportunity to fit them in person, we knew they needed so much more. And in addition to all the material things they need, and the better food, water and health care, these were children who might never again have so many people come to visit them and play with them. We place a lot of effort on making big change in the world, solving the water crisis, ending poverty, stopping malaria... I'd love nothing more than to see all those challenges addressed and someday resolved. But we should talk more about and encourage more change like this, moments where we can make some kids smile for a few hours and give them memories they will treasure for the rest of their lives

David Burstein is an activist, filmmaker and writer. He is the director of the documentary film 18 in '08 about youth voting, and the Executive Director of the youth civic engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be released in fall 2011 from Beacon Press. He is 22, and a student at New York University.