Much of Lisa Brown's life revolves around shoes -- the Danville resident and Tootsies owner busily moves around her shop, which sells footwear, accessories and offers pedicures. But last month, the relationship between shoes and feet took on a new meaning in Brown's life.
Together with her 77-year-old mother, daughter, sister and niece, Brown traveled to Costa Rica to take part in a weeklong service trip for Soles4Souls. The Nashville-based charity collects shoes and distributes them to people in need around the world; Brown's trip took her to Guarari, a slum outside of Costa Rica's capital city, San Jose.
"It was really life changing. When you go on these trips, to these kids a new pair of shoes isn't about making a fashion statement -- it's really a life changer for them," Brown said.
About 20 volunteers, including Brown's family, distributed donated sneakers at a preschool in the La Carpio neighborhood. Approximately 40,000 people, half of whom are immigrants from Nicaragua and other Central American countries, live in the slum and Guarari shantytown. The slum is surrounded on two sides by rivers and another by a large landfill and receives no aide from the government, Brown said tearfully.
Soles4Souls estimates that over 300 million children worldwide do not have shoes, which are often a requirement to attend school. Additionally, several parasitic infections are transmitted through the cracks on the bottoms of feet, causing tremendous risk.
"I thought it was doing to be really sad and depressing, but it was actually really uplifting to know that something as small as a pair of shoes really makes a difference," Brown said of volunteering. "You really did feel like you were helping."
Over the course of three days, volunteers distributed 500 rubber-soled sneakers to children between 2 and 12 years old. Although none of the children spoke English, and many volunteers spoke no Spanish, Brown said each child seemed very excited and happy.
"It didn't matter because there was something so special with each child, they got five minutes with a caring adult," Brown said, describing the donation process.
Brown and her family would first measure the child's feet with a paper measurer, then write the size on their hands; the children were particularly excited to have a number because "it made them feel official," Brown added. While someone retrieved the proper size shoe, groups of six kids would sit on chairs to have their feet washed and tickled by volunteers, who tried to personalize the interaction between strangers.
"It was really an event. Everyone out side was laughing and having fun…in an otherwise kind of sad life. It felt like you were bringing lightness, just realizing that we really can impact a village and make a difference," Brown said.
Although Brown and her daughter, a recent Monte Vista graduate, may go on a Soles4Souls trip to Honduras next summer, she plans to put similarly charitable practices into motion next month.
"Soles4Souls has a presence at our shoe shows; I had always seen them but hadn't done much," Brown noted. "Beginning Sept. 1, for every pair of shoes brought, we will donate a pair of shoes to Soles4Souls. That way we can stay connected."
For more information on Soles4Souls, visit soles4souls.org.