Shoe-making party helps African women, children
Jennifer Lee Preyss
March 16, 2012 at midnight
Updated March 15, 2012 at 10:16 p.m.
Leaning over a table at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church, Christine Willis reached for a black Sharpie marker. A pair of denim jeans laid on the surface before her, waiting to be traced, cut and sorted.
With a Sharpie in her right hand, Willis drew around an 8-year-old toddler's foot shoe pattern - the first step in creating a pair of shoes for impoverished African children in Zambia and Uganda.
"When I was little, we were kind of poor. We always had to fight for shoes," said Willis, a seven-year-long member of the church. "This was something personal for me to get involved in. I don't like to see anyone go without shoes."
Two weeks ago, Willis joined a group of about 30 members at the church for a Sole Hope shoe-cutting party.
Sole Hope is a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that facilitates shoe-cutting parties in the United States, Canada and Japan, where attendees prepare shoe parts from denim and cotton fabric. The pre-cut materials are then shipped to Africa to be sewn together.
When the shoe parts arrive in Zambia and Uganda, Sole Hope distributes them to village widows, who have no access to other income sources, to sew the shoes together for a wage.
"In African culture, when a woman's husband dies, her house, land, even sometimes her children, are taken away from her by the husband's family. And the in-laws disown you. The women are seen as having an evil spirit, or demons, and the wife carries the curse," Sole Hope founder Asher Collie said. "They have everything taken from them, and some end up homeless. Sometimes to earn money, they end up prostituting themselves."
Collie said Sole Hope provides the opportunity to employ the widows and teach them a trade, where they earn about $10 per pair of shoes, of which $2 is take-home salary - slightly higher than the average wage in both countries.
Leftover funds are used to buy supplies and pay for maintenance of the building, so that gradually the women will be operating their own micro-businesses without the assistance of the organization.
In Zambia and Uganda, a family of five survives on about $1 per day, Collie said.
"It's really neat because ... it empowers these women to have a skill, make money and develop a trade," Collie said.
When the shoes are complete, Sole Hope purchases the shoes from the widows and distributes them to the village children.
"When we give out the shoes, we educate the children on the importance of having closed-toe shoes, and that it keeps them healthy," Collie said.
Attendees of Our Saviour's shoe-cutting party were responsible for either tracing, cutting or organizing specific parts of children's shoes. They were also asked to donate old denim or cotton shirts to the party, that can later be given to another group in town interested in hosting a shoe-cutting party of their own.
"Many people are not aware of the need for shoes in Africa. Children's feet become infected with sand fleas and parasites, and they're painful to remove," shoe-cutting event planner Tammy Hartman said.
African locals attempting to remove the parasites often use unsterile needles to dig larva out of infected feet and share the tools among the people, which can pass along HIV, among other illnesses, Collie said.
Hartman organized the shoe-cutting party at her church after finishing a Bible study on the book of James, she said, which emphasizes taking care of children and widows. When the study concluded, she asked her church pastor, the Rev. John Waak, if he knew of any works-oriented projects that she could become involved in.
"The Bible study just tugged at my heart. It encourages you to live out your faith," Hartman said. "So I asked my pastor, and he told me about this project."
Waak was familiar with Collie's Sole Hope organization because he was longtime friends with her father.
"I've known him since I was a baby," Collie said.
When Collie launched Sole Hope in March 2010, she originally wanted to start her shoe mission in Ethiopia, but has not yet been able to get a program started in the country.
Collie soon learned Waak has relationships with Ethiopian churches and was planning to make a trip to the country in April.
Waak said he hopes to eventually partner with Sole Hope to expand the shoe-making mission in Ethiopian villages.
"This project gives hope to the poorest of the poor, and I think it's something Jesus would have done," Waak said. "It's also a powerful witness to give churches in affluent nations - to return to the roots of what real church is about, Jesus and his love."
While the impact of the shoe-cutting parties are an entertaining craft project, the impact of cutting and sorting fabric for poor African nations helps increase the wellness of children and build confidence and a lifelong trade for women, Collie said.
"By doing this, we're able to give them back their dignity. We help put a roof over their head, and women are able to work and eat and feed their children," she said. "A lot of Americans are naive as to how truly blessed we are - especially if we haven't traveled oversees to third world countries."