By Scott Collins
(ST. PETERSBURG, Russia) — Rachel Garton has heard every pun imaginable during her 18 months as director of Buckner International’s Shoes for Orphan Souls ministry.
They range from, “putting the best foot forward,” to “if the shoe fits, wear it.” She’s even been called the “Queen of Sole.”
There’s no question in the minds of Buckner officials throughout the agency that Shoes for Orphan Souls has allowed the ministry to get its foot into many doors in the United States and internationally in the 10 years since Buckner took over the program from Dallas-based radio station KCBI.
“Shoes for Orphans Souls as a ministry in and of itself has provided shoes for literally millions of children around the world,” said Ken Hall, president of Buckner. “But at the same time, it has opened numerous doors for Buckner around the world. It has given all of what Buckner does credibility to those who don’t know us.”
In January, Buckner begins a year-long celebration of 10 years since it took over the program. In 1999, KCBI was ending five years of hosting what it called “Shoes for Russian Souls,” a campaign the radio station used to collect shoes for Russian orphans. It was the brainchild of then-station manager Ron Harris.
But after five years, Harris approached Buckner officials about taking over the program. Hall said the immediate answer was “Yes!”
“We had so much respect for Ron and what KCBI had done to that point,” Hall said. “At the same time, we were deeply involved in Russia and opening work in other countries. We knew this could be a vehicle for Buckner in so many ways.”
Still, even Hall and others at Buckner admit that while they knew the shoe program had great potential, the past 10 years have been beyond what they expected.
“We have Shoe for Orphan Souls drives in almost every state. We have distributed nearly 2 million pairs of shoes in 55 countries. And so many different segments of society, from churches to civic clubs, schools, Christian radio stations, just about everyone you can imagine does a shoe drive now,” Hall said.
Through September, Garton said the 2008 shoe drive year-to-date is running far ahead of last year. Already, more than 830 shoes drives have been held nationwide and close to 250,000 pairs of shoes have been collected through the first nine months of the year, she said.
“We sometimes wonder if people will move on to something else after awhile,” Garton said. “But our folks are faithful and they just keep collecting shoes and financial contributions to support us.”
Two years ago, the Shoes for Orphan Souls program took a big step forward when the Buckner Center for Humanitarian Aid opened in east Dallas. The 45,000-square foot building serves as the receiving and shipping center for the ministry.
Each year, more than 5,000 volunteers log in excess of 20,000 hours sorting shoes and preparing them for shipment around the world. The warehouse has become a popular spot for church youth groups and mission teams from around the country. Already this year, more than 240,000 pairs of shoes have passed through the center.
That number doesn’t include shoes purchased by Buckner in many countries where shoes are distributed. In those cases, Buckner buys shoes locally with money donated to Buckner rather than shipping them because it’s more cost-effective.
“The financial contributions we receive to support Shoes for Orphan Souls are used to ship shoes around the world, but also to purchase shoes in a lot of places where it’s more convenient and better stewardship to buy locally,” said Garton.
In Russia, where it all started for Buckner 10 years ago, shoes, especially warm boots, are bought locally. In October, a team of volunteers from the United States spent eight days visiting 11 orphanages delivering shoes to children.
For Ludmila Baranova, retired director of Orphanage No. 2 in St. Petersburg, one of the first recipients of shoes in 1999, the shoes have had a “direct impact, first and foremost on the physical condition of the children.”
But she added that having teams of Americans come to the orphanage to give the shoes to the children has also had an “emotional impact on the condition of the children. They have fond memories of the time they spent with the groups,” Baranova said. “Their happy memories are all about hope. This hope helps them in the future. It’s hard to overstate what Buckner has done.”
And while shoes are shipped around the world to 55 countries, some of the most profound impact of the ministry is right back in Texas, where the most recent Shoes for Orphan Souls mission trip took 24 volunteers to the El Paso/Juarez, Mexico area.
According to Jorge Zapata, ministry director for Buckner Border Ministries, the mission team from all over the United States ministered to 950 people on both sides of the border. He said the team saw 63 people accept Christ through the shoe distribution efforts.
Zapata said the mission trip generated local television coverage on Univision. “They opened the story by saying that because of all the violence going on in Juarez, many religious groups have cancelled their trips, but Buckner International came anyway to make a difference in Juarez,” Zapata said.
Cindy Terry, one of seven women from First Baptist Church, Longview, who was on the trip, said the experience provided a special blessing for her.
“I am so grateful for this mission experience and I feel so personally blessed,” she said. “Each time I get a close-up glance of God at work, I am moved beyond words.”
Buckner officials said a variety of activities and events are being planned to celebrate the 10th anniversary in 2009. For more information, visit www.ShoesforOrphanSouls.org.
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