In July 2012, 13 Oregon State University students traveled with Holt to Silti, Ethiopia. While they came to build homes for families in Holt’s family-strengthening program, they also brought with them over 200 pairs of shoes to distribute among the families. For some, these would be the first pair of shoes they had ever owned.
Silti is a peaceful farming community at the westernmost edge of the Great Rift Valley. With breathtaking mountain views and a patchwork landscape in eye-popping shades of green, life in this fertile valley of southern Ethiopia is easy to romanticize.
In many ways, Silti is an idyllic setting. Here, children run barefoot through open fields – safe from the dangers of the city. Everyone knows everyone’s child, and the whole community is looking out for them. There are no factories in Silti. No cars or parking lots. No power lines, no landfills. No one has paved this paradise.
In other ways, life in Silti, Ethiopia is not so ideal. Silti is rich in culture and natural beauty. But in the strictest definition of the term, the residents of Silti are achingly poor. They do not choose to live without electricity or running water. Most would prefer to live in homes made of brick, not of mud and dung. And it’s not just children playing in summer who go barefoot. For many of Silti’s residents, even shoes are a luxury.
Silti is one of the communities in Ethiopia where Holt is working to strengthen families. Actually, the families do the work. We provide the tools and resources they need to get started, such as a cow or a goat. Our one-time gift then turns into a small business when the family begins to sell the cow’s milk and calves – giving them a continuous source of income they can use to support their children. In this way, we help families to help themselves. With their income, they can purchase basic necessities such as food, clothing, school fees and medicine. Often, families earn just enough to buy one or two pairs of clothing. They can’t always afford new shoes.
In July 2012, a group of Oregon State University student-athletes traveled to Silti with Holt. They came to help build homes for families in Holt’s family-strengthening program. But before they left, the students asked friends and family to donate shoes for the families they would visit.
The idea for the shoe drive came from Patric Campbell, a Holt adoptive father and OSU alum who joined the students on the trip. This would be Patric’s third journey to Ethiopia. He first traveled in 2009 with his wife, Holly, to bring home their adopted son, Miles. In the years since, Patric has become significantly involved in Holt’s efforts to build a hospital in Shinshicho, near his son’s birthplace. In 2011, he traveled with Holt staff to visit the construction project.
As he was preparing for this trip, Holly noticed something in the pictures of the hospital site.
“We were looking at the photos of the hospital construction and noticed that none of the workers were wearing shoes,” Patric explains. “There was rebar all over the place!”
Using Facebook, they appealed to family and friends to donate shoes. “We quickly had 100, then 200 pairs of shoes!” Patric says. When he arrived in Shinshicho to distribute the shoes, the workers were overjoyed.
“Here I was at the construction site giving out shoes and the workers were singing and dancing and hugging me just for giving them a pair of shoes,” Patric told a reporter when he shared his story with the OSU publication BeaverBlitz last June. “For some of them, these were the first pair of shoes they had ever had and they had seen family members die because of foot-related infections or injuries.”
Shoes are so readily available and affordable for most of us in the Western world, it’s easy to take them for granted. But they serve a vital purpose, and can even save lives – particularly in less-developed places absent modern plumbing, such as Silti and Shinshicho.
“Your feet are quite susceptible to getting cuts and bruises,” explains Sarah Halfman, Holt’s director of programs for Ethiopia and Uganda. “When you’re walking in unsanitary conditions, you can open yourself to infections from bacteria and worms. If left untreated, any infection can be deadly.”
And in rural Ethiopia, where access to health care is extremely limited, infections often do go untreated.
A year after delivering shoes to the hospital workers in Shinshicho, Patric found himself organizing another shoe drive for yet another trip to Ethiopia – this time with 13 enthusiastic OSU students. In total, they collected over 200 pairs, which they lugged with them in several jumbo-sized duffel bags.
After a week spent building homes for two families in Silti, the students joined community members in front of a local government office. Almost everyone had walked several miles from their village for the much-anticipated shoe distribution, many of them in bare feet. Children sat in front of their parents on the ground, while the government officials graciously provided chairs for the students. As Silti is a Muslim community, the women and girls wore colorful headscarves and many of the men wore Muslim caps. Some of the children wore V-neck sweaters provided by Holt as part of our child sponsorship program.
Every child at the shoe distribution was in Holt sponsorship. Every family was in Holt’s family-strengthening program. To every one of the beautiful faces in the crowd, Holt had helped bring greater hope and joy.
Actually, the people of Silti are already a pretty joyful bunch. Gentle and kind and lovely, they had throughout the week shown overwhelming warmth and gratitude to the students. On this day, the mood was especially cheerful. Not only did these 13 students build homes for two of the most vulnerable families in Silti – raising the funds themselves for both travel and building materials – but they also brought 200 pairs of shoes to give away! The shoes now sat at the students’ feet, spilling over the tops of the six duffel bags they arrived in.
For the ceremony, the students would present a pair of shoes to each member of the two families for whom they built homes. The local officials would distribute the rest of the shoes to the community later on, after the presentation. But first, Tesfaye Belachew – Holt Ethiopia’s jovial in-country program director – turned to the families to greet them.
“How many of your cows have given birth?” he asked.
Many people raised their hands, indicating that the cows Holt provided them had already produced calves they could sell for income. In the two years that Holt Ethiopia has served the Silti community, most of the families have received livestock or start-up funding for a small retail business. Eventually, all families in Holt’s family-strengthening program will receive a similar income-generating project.
Everyone clapped and cheered as the students presented the shoes, pair by pair, to the family members. Some of the children seemed a bit bashful as they were called to the front, including Marema – the 14-year-old daughter of Zahra Hussen, one of the two women who received a new home. Each of the family members selected their shoes beforehand, and Marema chose a pair of light pink Converse. She said she would save them for the days when she and her mother walk several miles to bring their crops to the Silti market.
After the ceremony, the zonal administrator for Silti shared a few words. “One thing we have learned from these people is love,” he said of the OSU students and Holt staff members. “Even though they speak a different language and have a different religion, they came all the way here and showed us their love. It’s really a good lesson for us.”
This is a point echoed by Tesfaye, when later speaking of the “social values” the students demonstrated. “We try to show the love between the Muslim and the Christian,” he explained. “It’s an issue here.” Although Christianity and Islam have coexisted in Ethiopia for thousands of years, tensions continue to divide some members of the two faiths. “They see us as Christian,” said Tesfaye. “And they see that we care about them.”
By building homes and giving shoes, the students have shown their love and compassion for a culture and community half a world away. They left Ethiopia 200 pairs of shoes lighter, but they took with them an experience far more valuable than any material possession.
While traveling with Holt in Ethiopia, OSU gymnast Stephanie McGregor documented the trip for the NCAA’s “Global Perspectives” blog. At the shoe ceremony, she presented a pair of New Balance running shoes to a boy named Kedir, whose family she helped to build a new house. “I think Tesfaye summed it up best when he said, ‘My heart is singing.’ That is,” she wrote, “exactly how I felt.”