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The little shoe drive that changed the world

The world was so much bigger in 1994. For those born in this millennium, it's almost impossible to overstate just how true that is.

The Internet was still a mystery hidden behind the beeps and whistles of dial-up modems. International travel was rare and expensive. All of us were coming out of the shadow of the Cold War as we discovered what life was like in Eastern Europe.

That’s the stage a small KCBI radio mission team was working on when it traveled to underfunded, overcrowded Russian orphanages. They encountered incredible people serving amazing children in dire circumstances. 

“We talked to orphanage directors [about what we could do], and what emerged again was a need for shoes,” said Ron Harris, who was leading KCBI at the time. “Almost every list was shoes. ‘We desperately need shoes.’” 

It was such a simple request, but an immense need. Because these children didn’t have strong shoes, they were susceptible to diseases and infections they would contract through small cuts on the bottom of their feet. Parasites would enter their bodies, leading to dysentery and a weakening of their bodies. 

The Dallas-based radio station sought to help. Leaders thought they might raise 400-500 pairs of shoes. Listeners responded by donating more than 5,000 pairs. And they did so every year through 1998. 

A movement was born.

One shoe drive led to another. Then another. And another. Churches. Schools. Businesses. Bible studies. People were moved by the realization that they could help vulnerable children around the world. They told their friends, family and co-workers.

The effort exploded, gaining so much momentum that it outgrew KCBI’s capacity to run it. The station turned to Buckner.

“God clearly was doing something special,” said Ken Hall, Buckner president and CEO at the time. “Everyone could see it. It was undeniable. The only question was what was the next step in this journey? KCBI knew about our work with vulnerable children, knew our passion and our expertise, and felt God wanted us to carry the torch of changing children’s lives through shoes forward. We were and continue to be honored to do so.”

If the radio drives were an explosion of activity, the effort known as Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls® became a supernova. People donated more than 20,000 pairs of shoes the first year under Buckner. The initiative reached beyond Dallas and soon after well beyond Texas.

Drives were happening so quickly, the ministry had to lease space in a mall in order to house all of the shoes. Boxes and boxes showed up at Buckner through the mail and delivered by hand. Thousands of volunteers began sorting, prepping and boxing shoes to be shipped, first to Russia, then all around the globe when the supply became big enough.

In a few short years, more than 100,000 pairs of shoes were being donated annually. Drives happened in all 50 states and even internationally as other countries saw how they could help within their own borders. More than 3 million shoes have been donated since 1999.

Hundreds of people each year participated in shoe distribution mission trips through Buckner, seeing the impact donated shoes have first hand.

“It’s hard to put into words just how moving it is to kneel in front of a child and wash their feet like Jesus did with the disciples, wiping away the dirt and the muck, then placing a new pair of socks and shoes where tatters once were,” said Rachel Wallis, director of Shoes for Orphan Souls. “The joy a child expresses in that moment of receiving what is often their first pair of new shoes is overwhelming.”

Buckner built a 45,000-square foot Buckner Center for Humanitarian Aid largely for shoes, but also for other items such as clothes, school supplies and water filters. Buckner has shipped shoes to more than 80 countries, shining hope into the lives of children.

In each location, a pair of shoes is used as a way to foster a conversation with a family struggling in poverty. While helping a child, ministries like Buckner can share about other services they provide such as financial empowerment efforts, parenting classes and programming for children.

“The gift of a pair of shoes is often the first step in the transformation of the life of a child and a child’s family,” said Buckner President and CEO Albert Reyes. “After seeing how much Buckner cares for their children, families often enter the holistic programming of Buckner Family Hope Centers, where we help them reach their God-given potential.”

That transformation is what continues to drive Shoes for Orphan Souls as it marches toward 4 million shoes and beyond. The need for shoes remains. As does the commitment of vast army of people who care about children.

“A new pair of shoes is so much more than simply new footwear,” Wallis said “They provide health, the opportunity to go to school, opportunity for additional services through Buckner and hope for a better future. Children around the world know they are loved through the gift of a pair of shoes, and it’s changing their lives.”

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