Big Steps: Shoes for Orphan Souls™ Walks Tall

By Scott Collins

It’s a scene I’ve watched for 13 years, going back even before Buckner took over what is today Shoes for Orphan Souls™.

The mission team files into an orphanage where a horde of giddy and excited children wait. It’s chaos in the best possible way. Boxes sitting on the floor are ripped open and eager hands extract the contents – shoes.

Mission volunteers, as excited now as the children they are about to serve, reach inside the shoes and pull out crumbled pieces of paper. In one shoe is a child’s name – Sergei, Misha, Juan, Carlos. In the other shoe is a note from somewhere in the United States written with love by a shoe donor from Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Florida. “God loves you.” “I’m praying for you.”

I’ve watched this scenario time and time again from Russia to China to Central America and even the U.S. I’ve taken countless photos and video of those mission volunteers peeling off filthy socks and replacing them with clean, new socks and brand new shoes.

Every time, my focus is on the feet. After all, shoes are the star, so feet are important.

But now, replaying those scenes in my mind’s DVR, I realize there is always an unseen hero; another part as important as the feet – the knees.

No, we don’t put shoes on knees. But without knees, we don’t put shoes on feet.

By global standards, our Buckner volunteers are wealthy. And yet, there they are, kneeling at the feet of impoverished children.

From the start
When Ron Harris started “Shoes for Russian Souls” at KCBI Radio in Dallas in 1994, he saw it as a way to infuse immediate help into the lives of orphans he’d seen stranded in the wastelands of Russian orphanages. Five years after that initial drive, Shoes for Russian Souls garnered about 5,000 pairs of shoes annually.

But Harris knew the radio station had reached its limit. Because its broadcast signal covered only the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, Harris knew their capacity to collect shoes was limited. He believed the program could be much bigger.

Leaders at Buckner agreed. So when Harris asked if Buckner was interested in taking over the program, it didn’t take long to say yes.

KCBI collected its last shoes in the fall of 1998, shipped them to Russia and hosted a team in February of 1999 – the station’s last. I joined that group on the trip to see how things were done. It didn’t take long to realize the magnitude of the ministry.

Within the first year, Buckner implemented two strategic changes. The first was to move the shoe drive up three months, from November to August. That would allow us more time to collect and ship the shoes, ensuring they would arrive in Russia about the same time as the first seasonal snow.

We began the process early, anticipating an Aug. 1 launch of our drive. That same year, the Texas Legislature approved the first-ever back-to-school tax-free holiday weekend – for the first week of August.

To say we underestimated the potential would be an understatement. Where KCBI had topped out at 5,000 pairs, we decided to show enormous faith and set a goal of 10,000 for our first year. By Aug. 31, we had collected 17,500 pairs of shoes, 20,000 pairs of socks and more than $60,000 in cash.

In November 1999, Buckner hosted our first-ever “Shoes for Russian Souls” mission trip, where 83 people traveled to Russia and put shoes on the children’s feet.

That success led to the second strategic change within the first year Buckner operated the program – the name change. Realizing the scope and potential of the ministry, we changed the name to “Shoes for Orphan Souls” – SOS. That in turn led to expanding shoe drives beyond Texas.

Opening doors
Over the past 13 years, we’ve used every cliché imaginable to talk about Shoes for Orphan Souls. “A step in the right direction.” “Best foot forward.” “If the shoe fits…”

But the best and most descriptive may be, “Getting our foot in the door.”

SOS has supplied shoes to more than 2.5 million children all over the world since 1999. Throw in a few million socks, and the impact on the lives of children is exponential.

For many children who have received a new pair of shoes through the years, those shoes were the first thing in their lives they actually owned. Orphanage directors often expressed initial skepticism when Buckner promised new shoes for every child in the orphanages. But when the shoes and teams of volunteers arrived, the doubt left. Buckner earned the reputation of an organization that fulfilled its promises, unlike many groups the directors had seen.

Those fulfilled promises gave countries and orphanages confidence that Buckner was legitimate and did what we said we would do. In response, they began opening their doors to Buckner and asking for help in other areas of childcare.

The result is that most of the countries where Buckner has a significant presence today opened up because of SOS.

Internal/external
It may sound odd today, but for the first nine years Buckner operated SOS, it was an orphan itself, shuffling from location to location. It was hard for volunteers to know where to go to sort the shoes.

It wasn’t until the Buckner Center for Humanitarian Aid Center opened in 2007 that SOS finally had a home. The center was built specifically to accommodate the massive influx of shoes and socks and to handle the number of volunteers flocking to SOS each year.

Once the center opened, it began attracting nearly 6,000 volunteers annually who prepare the shoes for worldwide shipping. Having an actual presence, a place to point to as “shoe central,” boosted the overall image and popularity of the program both within the Buckner family as well as externally.

Another significant influence on the shoe program through the years has been its acceptance as a cause by Christian radio stations around the country. Literally from coast to coast, SOS has captured radio stations and their audiences who singlehandedly are responsible for collecting more than a third of all shoes donated each year.

And those stations and their listeners have gone a step further, organizing “Shoe Mission Trips” through Buckner to visit children around the world and put shoes on needy feet.

But without question, the strength of SOS remains within local churches. From the very beginning in 1999, churches grasped the simplicity of the idea – donate a new pair of shoes to an orphan. Who can’t do that?

Today, churches in all 50 states and other countries have hosted shoe drives through the past 13 years. That has in turn led to churches becoming involved in a variety of other Buckner ministries. When Buckner took over the shoe drive in 1999, we had fewer than 4,000 churches on our database. Today, that number exceeds 9,000.

Getting personal
The one thing about SOS is that it is measureable. It’s easy to tell if we received more shoes this year than last. We have more statistical categories for measuring the program than Major League Baseball.

Walk through the Humanitarian Aid Center and you’re surprised at the level of sophistication. Boxes are labeled with high-tech barcodes. Our team can track a box anywhere in the world. The efficiency of the sorting system rivals the best assembly lines Detroit automakers have to offer. Pairs of shoes pass through with phenomenal speed. If you visit during peak days, you’ll see mountains of shoes and cardboard boxes waiting for shipment.

But you’ll also see volunteers praying as they sort through those shoes; praying, not for the shoes, but for the child who will soon wear them. Posters adorn the walls, serving as reminders that this is not your typical assembly line.

Still, nothing is more personal than the experience of kneeling in front of a child and placing a new pair of shoes on that child’s feet. My favorites are the light-up shoes – the ones that sparkle when you bounce. They also elicit joyful giggles.

In November, my wife Judy and I gave shoes to children in the Dominican Republic [see page 9]. It was Judy’s first-ever Buckner trip. For all 13 years that Buckner has collected shoes, our family has made a point of buying at least one pair of shoes (usually more) and donating to Buckner. Our daughter Claire is 16, so she doesn’t remember a time when we didn’t give shoes.

Today, Claire is one of the most giving people I know. Last summer, she literally gave the shoes off of her own feet to a child in Kenya when we ran out of shoes that would fit the girl. I’m convinced SOS has taught Claire how to give.

At the very least, it hasn’t hurt.

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