“Every pair of shoes tells a story”
In Medicine, to heal is to deal with the disease, but it was not until I began my work with children infected and affected by HIV/AIDS in Kampala, Uganda, that I learned that true healing goes beyond medicine.
For many of these children, their will to live is stronger than the disease that plagues them, so the gifts we give them in the way of school fees, clothing, books, etc. mean more to them than the ARV drugs prescribed. Last March 2013, right around Nowruz, we took about five suitcases of clothing and books collected by members of our Persian community in Maryland/DC area to the children in Kampala. Their response upon receiving these donations were so pure and genuine, they humbly and gratefully accepted our gifts. Aside from their smiles and thank yous, the children performed a song of thanks to bless the donation, the donor, and God for bringing them all together.
As the children tried on their new clothes, I caught sight of a young girl twirling around with a pretty dress clutched to her chest. She stood slightly away from the group, eyes shining, looking over her new gift. I went over to her to see how she liked her new dress.
“The dress I chose is so beautiful. It will go with my dark skin and make me look smart (a colloquial term for looking good),” she said to me. I was thrilled with her response and glad I could help make such a sweet girl so happy.
As I smiled to myself however, she added, “I hope I don’t gain too much weight or get too tall so I outgrow it.”
This seemed odd to me; Children infected with HIV/AIDS face stunted growth and rarely gain weight. When I assured her that she did not need to worry about outgrowing the dress, she responded in a most peculiar way.
“I’m not sure how long it will take for my Grandmother to save enough money to buy me good shoes and this dress is too beautiful to wear without good shoes.”
Until this moment I hadn’t taken the time to notice the girl’s feet, but upon looking down I saw she was wearing flip flops much too big for her feet, held together with a rubber band. My heart stopped in my chest. Here was a young girl, fighting an incurable disease, grateful beyond measure for a simple dress, hoping, not asking, for a pair of shoes.
Months later as I was sitting in my hotel room in China, homesick and planning my trip back to Uganda, I was reminded of that moment with the young girl. Again I felt the rush of emotions I had been overcome by that day in Kampala. Awash with an overwhelming sense of humility and a need to do more, I reached out to my friends, family, and community members who had been so quick to help in the past.
The email I sent had a simple request: “Would anyone be interested in purchasing a pair of shoes for a child at my clinic?”
After doing the simple math, I realized that if about 110 people were willing to buy one pair of shoes each for up to $25, we could provide a pair of shoes for each child in the program. What I didn’t anticipate however, was just how far the generosity of my community reached.
Within just a few weeks, the members of our local Farsi School rallied together, not only reacting positively to the call for shoes, but also spreading the word to their families and friends nationwide. We began receiving shoes and donations from all over the country, even as far as California and Florida. Soon, we had over 145 pairs of shoes and $2200 in donations used to purchase shoes for siblings of our orphans and adult volunteers who are also HIV positive. Many of our younger community members even took the time to write letters to the children in our program by name.
The impact that these shoes, donations, and letters had on the children at our clinic in Uganda is impossible to put into words. Children infected with HIV face a challenging life; they are cheated out of a childhood and denied the basic pleasures of being a kid. While sporting their new shoes and broad smiles however, I was able to see in each of them a glimpse of that childhood renewed and their spirits strengthened.
Every child in the program has a story to tell, many of sadness, many of loss, but all with an underlying storyline of hope. Every pair of shoes tells one of their stories.
The Shoe Project strengthened my faith in community, more importantly in our Iranian community. It made me realize the impact we can have on someone’s life when we work together.
What started with a young girl’s hope, led to a community’s response, and in turn two communities became one. A group of HIV/AIDS infected/affected children in Uganda and a school of Iranians in Maryland will forever be connected through more than a pair of shoes, but a bond of empathy and hope.
This project was assisted by "Innovators for Change", which is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that strives to empower individuals to help them lead social change, by supporting their individual and community projects and initiatives.