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Revelations: Keeping a promise to help Africa

Feb. 4, 2011 at midnight
Updated Feb. 3, 2011 at 8:04 p.m.

Jennifer Preyss

BY JENNIFER PREYSSTwo years ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Malawi in southern Africa on an educational mission trip. My friend Christy and I departed in late July of 2009, and three days later, we arrived in Africa entirely unprepared for what we'd see. One of the first real signs of poverty: Men selling "African sausage," (stacks of grilled mice on long skewers) on the side of the road for pennies.

I distinctly remember how exotic and lovely the landscapes were, though. The trees were bent and wandering, as if the tree trunks and limbs decided to grow apart from one another, without a plan. And the women, wearing long skirts and babies thrown over their shoulders, walked barefoot down the streets with large wooden baskets on their heads. It was a surreal experience, something I thought I'd never see outside a classroom.

One of the villages we were assigned to, Mtsiliza, was described to us as one of the most developed of the area villages we'd be working in. When our bus drove up to the village for the first time, however, all I could do was stare through the window in disbelief.

"Dirt roads, mud huts, barefoot children covered in muddy rags, faces, hands and bare feet dusted with dirt, bodies infected with ringworm," I observed silently. "This - is developed?"

As our bus approached the villagers, I quickly realized the children weren't the least bit bothered by their economic circumstance. In fact, I've never seen more excited children. They raced to my side, grabbed my hand and begged me again and again to take "one peekcha" with my camera. Many of them had never seen their reflection, and I was happy to oblige them.

Christy and I spent the next several days working in various villages around the town of Njewa, some of them even more impoverished than Mtsiliza. Extreme third-world poverty, thirst, hunger, illness and death were daily struggles of the people, and it occurred to me early on in the trip how I'd been geographically blessed to be born into an industrialized nation with an average life expectancy of 78.3 years. Compare that to Malawi's life expectancy of 48.3 years.

I'll never forget the faces of the little children walking barefoot through the dirt and clothed in rags, yet laughing and begging to be held and played with. As the trip progressed, I couldn't help but feel overwhelmingly thankful that I lived in a country where my government cared at all to fight over health care reform. At the same time, I was angry at the Malawian government for not figuring out how to meet the most basic needs of its people. They needed shelter, clean water, food, clothes and medical attention. And what about some shoes? If they had some shoes on their feet, maybe they'd avoid a few bacterial and viral infections coming through open wounds on their feet.

When I returned home from Africa, the plight of the Malawian people stayed with me. And as I scanned my home for the first time upon my return, everything appeared new. Even the tattered clothes in my over-stuffed closet were noticeably better than the Malawian's Sunday best. And my stupid, stuffed closet was filled with dozens of unworn shoes. I promised myself then, if there was ever a way to give back, or go back, to Africa, I'd figure out how to make it happen.

A few months ago, I was tooling around on the Internet and came across a website for "True Religion" author Palmer Chinchen. On his site, there was a link for "Barefoot Sunday" and I guess my curiosity got the best of me. The Barefoot Sunday page was a link to an inspiring project that called people to service. It was a used shoe donation project for impoverished families in Africa. But it was also about going barefoot after you donated the shoes, and realizing the gravity of a visual sacrifice. But the most interesting thing about Barefoot Sunday was the part where Palmer leads a team of people to Africa, and hand delivers the shoes to village families.

"This is the coolest project, EVER," I told Palmer's website. "I could do something like this here!"

I started asking around to see if we could get some people together and create a Victoria-based Barefoot Sunday. I honestly didn't know if anyone would be interested in helping me organize a Barefoot Sunday, but a team of amazing folks assembled fairly quickly, and suddenly it was taking shape. As interest grew, I Facebook-stalked Palmer and invited him to attend the event and to my surprise, he wanted to come. So, after months of talking and planning, we made it happen. Barefoot Sunday will be held Sunday, Feb. 27 at 6 p.m. at Renegade Church in Victoria, and I'm inviting you all to clean out your closets and bring us your shoes. We're trying to collect 1,000 pairs of used shoes, and any additional donations will go to Kidz Connection. Barefoot Sunday will have two live bands, including Victoria's own Sky on Fire, and Palmer is scheduled to speak. There's no cost to attend, or participate. And if you're interested in volunteering, please contact me or education reporter Erica Rodriguez. You can drop shoes off at the Advocate, Faith Family, First United Methodist, John Wesley United Methodist, Parkway Church and Victoria College. And if you could all pray that we meet our goal of 1,000 shoes, I'd greatly appreciate it. Help us get the word out, and bring us some shoes. I hope to see you there.

Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or jpreyss@vicad.com.

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