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The impact of a shoe: Health and hope for vulnerable children worldwide

By Lauren Hollon Sturdy

It’s easy to take shoes for granted. Many people have a closet full of them – all different kinds for different occasions and seasons. Our shoes represent our sense of style. They signal to others how wealthy or broke we are. They can be comfortable and practical or painful and glamorous, but they usually boil down to a simple choice we make each morning as we dress for our day.

But for many people around the world, shoes represent a precious luxury, a first line of defense against painful, potentially disfiguring infections and a token that reminds them they are loved.

Saving soles

Going barefoot in Ethiopia or Honduras or one of 75 other countries where Shoes for Orphan Souls® has distributed shoes in the last 15 years isn’t just an inconvenience or a discomfort – it can lead to serious diseases and lifelong health problems.

The most critical threat for those who go barefoot is parasites, said Dr. Cedric Spak, infectious disease specialist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

“What was interesting was back in the 1930s, iron deficiency and anemia were common in the Deep South and nobody knew why,” he said. “People put two and two together and saw that the rate of infection was high in poor kids running around barefoot in Alabama and Mississippi. Some people said it was genetic, but others said hookworm was causing the problem.

“If children get iron deficiency and anemia, they don’t develop properly, and the most important thing that doesn’t develop is the brain. With their development stunted, they end up having an IQ of 60 to 80. Someone who’s able to hold a reasonable job in the economy has an IQ of 100 to 120.”

Spak talked about a famous undertaking by the Rockefeller Foundation as they worked in the first half of the 20th century to eradicate hookworm disease. In 1910, an estimated 40 percent of the population of the southern United States had hookworm. The foundation ran an educational campaign, worked to improve sanitation and provided shoes to those at risk.

“Shoes and the eradication of hookworm in the South are an excellent example of human progress,” Spak said. “Because of what the Rockefeller Foundation did, hookworm disease is essentially gone in the U.S.”

Spak said the foundation took their research and applied it in Bolivia, sending thousands of pairs of shoes to be distributed to children.

“They came back a couple of years later and the level of hookworm infection was the same,” Spak said. “It turned out the shoes were so nice, they only wore them to church. The parents didn’t want the shoes to get beat up.”

The chigoe flea, or jigger, is another parasite that threatens bare feet. It’s native to Central and South America but can now be found in sub-Saharan Africa, too. It burrows into the soles of bare feet to feed on the host’s blood until it lays eggs and dies. They can be removed with tweezers or a sterile pin in a painstaking and painful process. Sometimes, the host is vulnerable to infections in the wound where the jigger burrowed into the skin. Severe cases can cause toe deformation and nail loss. It’s a painful, itchy condition.

Injuries are also a threat to those who go without shoes in terrain filled with sharp rocks, bits of debris or thorny plants.

“From a puncture wound, you can become septic, get a systemic infection and die from it if the bacteria go untreated,” said Dr. Peter Wood, a podiatrist at Baylor University Medical Center. “If it’s not treated, it could be a matter of days, depending on what kind of bacteria it is. There are some patients [in the U.S.] that we have to do amputation within days of the infection. Certain types of bacteria are more aggressive than others.”

Podoconiosis is another debilitating condition that can be completely prevented by wearing shoes. It affects 1 million people in Ethiopia and about 500,000 in Cameroon, according to the World Health Organization. The disease also appears in Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Central and South America, India, Sri Lanka and several other places. It starts as an inflammatory reaction to walking on soil with volcanic deposits. The foot and lower leg swells and the skin becomes rough and lumpy. Besides the problem of limited mobility, people with podoconiosis become social outcasts, though the disease isn’t contagious.

Nobody has to contract these diseases and parasites. They are all preventable; all it takes is a pair of shoes.

Shoes show love

To an orphan child who has almost nothing in this world to call his or her own, new shoes aren’t just a one-time gift or a special treat. Receiving new shoes can tell them, “You are loved. Someone cares. You are not forgotten.”

Natasha Potts, 23, knows this well. She lived at Orphanage No. 2 in St. Petersburg, Russia, before she and her older brother were adopted. The only thing she owned for a long time was a single stuffed animal – a monkey her brother had given her for her birthday. Everything else was shared among dozens of children.

“Nothing belonged to you, and it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, what am I going to go fight for? I cannot take this or cannot wear this,’” she said. “I remember we had to share everything. There’s nothing of your own, hardly … Clothes, [the other kids would] just come and get it, or you grow out of it.”

She and her brother, Pasha, landed in the orphanage when their mother couldn’t take care of them. She visited them once and never came back. They had other family members who made promises to come and visit, but they never followed through. Natasha does remember and treasure memories of visits from foreign mission teams.

She remembered hearing the gospel from mission teams that visited during the summer to host camps for the children living in orphanages, and she vividly remembers the team that brought her a gift that so many people take for granted: her very own pair of black boots.

“Receiving a pair of shoes was one of the happiest moments of my life,” she said.

She recalled sitting down in a large room with a volunteer at her feet. The first pair she tried didn’t fit, and Natasha said she felt relieved, because she wanted “something cuter.”

“And so then the lady putting them on my feet, she showed me, like, ‘Do you want these?’ She gave me a choice, also. That was one of the memories where I’ll never forget, having those shoes put on my feet, that somebody I don’t know, somebody who comes over and so happy to do it, so happy to provide those shoes for us when we have nothing.

“It meant a lot, that pair of shoes belonged to us. They belonged to me. I wore them every single day, and something that will protect my feet so that they don’t get hurt, so that they don’t bruise or just something to play with outside.”

Today, Natasha lives in North Texas. She and Pasha were adopted by Bob and Donita Potts, a North Texas couple, in 2002 when Natasha was 12 and Pasha was 13. The little black snow boots made the journey with her to the U.S., and she still has them to this day.

By giving shoes, she says, people make a difference “for a lifetime.”

“You’re making a difference for a lifetime, not just that moment,” she said. “And people doing the shoe drives, people … donating shoes is one of the greatest gifts that a child can have, because I lived there. I know how it feels, and there’s no words to describe it because it’s overwhelming, it’s joyful, it’s just smiles on our faces when we do receive those shoes, knowing that somebody does care. It’s not about, ‘Oh, I just want to get a present’ or ‘this is my present.’ It’s something that they’re going to have for one, two years, of their own and they’re going to have that, and they always will remember where they came from: Somebody put those shoes on me.”

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