How old shoes are changing young lives in the Dominican Republic

By Darrel Hammon

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, April 29 2014 3:35 p.m. MDT

Kelly and Ruben

Kelly Strongitharm, Ruben's Shoes

Many of us spend time each day deciding which pair of shoes we will be wearing. The blue ones or the brown ones? Boots or sandals? Heels or no heels?

But many in the world have no such choices. In fact, they may not have even one pair of shoes.

Kelly Strongitharm from British Columbia understands the shoe thing. It was just one of those typical days in the mall about seven years ago when she was sauntering through. The moment she passed a World Vision kiosk, though, something happened that would change her life — and her view of shoes — forever.

“Normally, I’d just pass by the kiosk, but this time something, or should I say someone, jumped out at me," Strongitharm said. "I saw a picture of the cutest little boy that instantly made me stop.”

Once she saw the picture, she decided to do something she had never done before: sponsor a young boy.

She did a little research. World Vision "is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice," according to its website. The organization connects people with children across the world.

Strongitharm's connection was a little 3-year-old boy named Ruben who lived in the Dominican Republic. For seven years, they were pen pals, exchanging letters and pictures.

Each year, Strongitharm received an annual report that included another picture of Ruben. “I literally watched him grow up, and that was something special,” she said.

But something else kept calling her. In August 2012, she and her mother were trying to decide where to go for the Christmas holiday. They tossed around a few ideas, but that nagging feeling about the Dominican Republic gnawed on her conscience.

It was Ruben. She wanted to finally meet him. So she contacted World Vision to ask if a visit was possible. To her surprise, it was simple to request a visit.

For the next couple of months, she and her mother started collecting all sorts of items for Ruben and his little family — the basics like toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, coloring books, colored pencils and a soccer ball with a pump.

Soon they were in the D.R. Her meeting with Ruben was magical. Strongitharm wrote on her website rubensshoes.com:

“I was really nervous to meet Ruben. We walked in and I saw this little boy (well he’s 10 now) sitting there and instantly I knew it was him. … I brought the very first picture I had of Ruben (the one from the mall) and then the latest picture I had to show him. … This broke the ice a bit. ... Ruben was the one who initiated the first hug as he said ‘thank you’ after opening his gifts. It seriously melted my heart and I could feel a connection between us.”

While in the D.R. visiting Ruben, Strongitharm saw something else that touched her heart and sprouted a kernel of an idea.

“After seeing kids running around without any shoes and learning that they aren’t allowed to attend school without any shoes got me thinking," she said. "Most of my friends have kids, and we know kids outgrow their shoes and they are still in good shape. I thought I could collect a couple hundred pairs and hand them out to kids in Ruben’s village.”

Strongitharm couldn’t wait to return home and tell her two best friends about collecting shoes. Fortunately, they both wanted to be a part of the project. When Strongitharm recruited them, they both laughed and said, “This will be much bigger than you had ever thought.”

The nonprofit organization Ruben’s Shoes was born.

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