Discovering our souls through old soles

I got my first pair of Nike tennis shoes in July 1984.

More than 30 years later I remember it as if it were yesterday.

We were on the basement floor at JCPenney’s when I spied the back-to-school “SALE” sign. They were white leather low cuts with a large black swoosh.

I was 14. It didn’t matter to me if I had new jeans and clean shirts to wear. I wanted those Nike’s. I needed those Nike’s. As a 14 year old boy, they were all that mattered to me.

They looked sharp and, more importantly, they were mine. I had waited more than a few years to have them. In fact, I was the last of the boys on my block – there were six of us – to finally have a pair.

Spending extra money on name-brand tennis shoes, much less Nike’s, was a watershed moment in my house. We weren’t poor, but when it came to outfitting a growing boy, who would outgrow his clothes in a matter of months, my mom was thrifty with her purchases.

I knew it was a big deal, that is, until the shoelaces started to show signs of getting dirty and the wrinkles and creases from walking began to develop in the leather. Finally the white leather began to fade and eventually, oh my God, the dingy Nike’s were just another pair of shoes.

At the time, I had no idea that 31 years later I would learn that, according to Soles 4 Souls, half the world’s population was without shoes, including more than 300 million shoeless children. It’s estimated that 20 million children are orphaned and barefoot in Sub-Saharan Africa alone.

It’s embarrassing to think I felt cheated as a child for having to “wait so long” to have a pair of my own Nike’s.

In developing nations, shoes are a rarity.

In fact, 400 million children live in extreme poverty and 75 percent of them will go a lifetime without one of the most basic human necessities: shoes. And those who are fortunate enough to have shoes often share them with as many as two or three other children.

No shoes. No school.

In part because their bare feet are subject to carrying various diseases.

When bare soles of a young child’s feet harden they crack and, as a result, serious health conditions are absorbed through their feet. Among the infections are threadworm and hookworm, which is 60 times more common in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Surviving in abject poverty, these children live a scavenger’s existence and often walk across sewage trenches and other contaminated areas to reach garbage dumps and abandon construction sites. In addition to diseases, they’re also subjected to scrapes, cuts, puncture wounds and burns, which often infect their feet and ankles and lead to ulcers or worse and in some cases death.

I always knew a lack of shoes was a worldly problem.

Sadly I never took the time to understand how much of a problem it is.

This week I discovered 10-year-old Traci Weinstein, who set out to collect 25,000 pairs of used shoes. She exceeded her goal and collected more than 30,000.

She’s 10.

I was 14 and thought about myself and my Nike’s. She’s 10 and thought about the millions who are less fortunate and sought out a means of helping them.

I’m 45 years old today and as I stare at my neatly organized collection of shoes – all 44 pairs, which is 43 pairs more than I need – I’m further embarrassed by my own soulless ignorance, but there is a way for all of us to discover our souls through our old soles.

Like Traci, we can reach out to Soles 4 Souls.

Formed in 2006, Soles 4 Souls is a nonprofit organization that collects new and used shoes along with clothes and distributes through direct donations. More information about the organization and how to help, log onto:

[NOTE: This blog was written as part of a graduate level Science Writing course at Harvard University Extension School.]