March 28, 2018
This past holiday season, we had three amazing families leave the comforts of their homes to celebrate the season with us in Haiti to give back through the gift of shoes. Among them were Laura and Mark Howard and their 12-year-old daughter Kaia.
The Howards and their three children live in East Tennessee, a state where nearly one in five people live in poverty and often wear shoes several sizes too small. Like so many of our neighbors, they donate their time, talent and treasure to help those struggling to make ends meet. After meeting us in 2011, that now includes volunteering with Soles4Souls.
Their first trip to Haiti would happen soon after. And there they encountered a different kind of poverty—the kind in which people live on less than $1.90/day and often lack footwear altogether. Without shoes, they walk barefoot risking cuts, injuries and sometimes fatal illnesses caused by soil parasites. Without shoes, they are denied schooling and the promise of an education.
“It was all so overwhelming. The level of poverty made us wonder if we could really make a difference,” remembers Laura.
And then a chance encounter gave them hope.
“We were driving to a shoe distribution and from the window saw a little girl no older than three,” she continues. “Her home was a hut with no running water, yet there she was, standing tall on the roof enjoying a makeshift shower. It’s as if she was rising above all the despair and rinsing it all off. We understood then that change is possible because hope never dies.”
Laura and Mark have continued to be part of that change, going back to Haiti with us two more times and counting. Same country, different distribution sites.
“I know we could travel to other places,” adds Mark “but when I fly into Haiti, I feel like I’m going back home. We’ve made lifelong friendships with the local partners helping their own and know we’re providing people a real way to overcome hardship through the gift of shoes.”
The idea of overcoming hardship really sunk in on their second trip when they traveled with us to several remote areas forgotten by aid workers and visitors alike. The very boat they took to reach an isolated island community broke down several times at sea. And while the Howards and others cringed a little (or a lot), the driver seemed to rise above it all, focused only on how to fix it, exposed wires and all.
“These people are resourceful and smart about the little things in a way that most of us don’t have to be,” continues Mark. “They want to learn, work, be successful—just like anybody else. All they need is an opportunity.”
And even the young, like a boy they met on the island, understand the opportunity a pair of shoes can bring. He led his shy little sister to the distribution determined to get her new shoes to keep her healthy and in school. He reassured her as she sat on his lap while the Howards found the perfect pair. And only then could he breathe easy.
As parents, that moment meant a lot to Laura and Mark, and they wanted their own kids to experience the same. So this past December, they traveled with us once more to Haiti with their eldest.
“This was all new to Kaia and it brought to life all sides of her personality, from giddy to silent and everything in between,” remembers Laura. “She was overwhelmed and in love at the same time.”
In love most of all with the kids. The kind of love that helped her connect with boys and girls just like her during the distributions, measure their feet and tell them how beautiful they were. And when they walked away with grateful smiles, the kind of love that understood the real value of a simple pair of shoes.
The Howards are back stateside for now, but their work with Soles4Souls is far from over. They collect used shoes in their community that make their way into the hands of the small business owners we work with, who sell them for profit to provide for their families—women just like Jwanise whom they met on their last Haiti trip. They continue to get on the front lines, recently helping us deliver new coats to 300 Gatlinburg fire victims to combat yet another form of poverty—the sudden kind. And they’re already thinking of their next trip to Haiti.
At the beginning of 2018, Kaia’s school assignment was to outline a New Year’s resolution. Hers is to go back to Haiti to help more children. What was yours?
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