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Kelly Strongitharm, Ruben's Shoes
Kelly and Ruben
Once we got to the D.R. and were introduced to the people of Javillar, a village outside of Puerta Plata, our mission changed. We didn’t expect to connect with people on such a deep level. I now consider many of them friends. —Kelly Strongitharm

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.

"We don't have a conventional mission statement," Strongitharm said. "It's: Give Shoes, Give Education, Give Opportunity, Give Change." They also tout the phrase: "We give a pair of shoes a second life which gives a person in a different country a chance at a new beginning."

Strongitharm said that once word spread, “it caught on and fast. Shoes began coming in by the hundreds. Everyone wanted to help, including schools and other organizations. Their excitement was contagious.

“It was all because of Ruben. He gave me the true meaning of love and opened up my heart in a way I didn’t know about.”

The nonprofit organization uses a variety of methods to collect shoes. Local companies were designated as drop-off points called “Ruben’s Buddies” so people could donate shoes. Local schools became actively involved, especially after Strongitharm went to visit.

“It's a positive, feel-good experience,” she said of the school visits, “and the kids were so excited to get involved.”

By November 2013, Strongitharm and Ruben's Shoes had collected over 12,000 pairs of shoes. Because of the outpouring of donations, they had to find a shipping container to hold them all. With lots of volunteer help, they loaded the container and shipped it to the D.R.

“Once we got to the D.R. and were introduced to the people of Javillar, a village outside of Puerta Plata, our mission changed," Strongitharm said. "We didn’t expect to connect with people on such a deep level. I now consider many of them friends.”

While there, Strongitharm connected with Louise ZoBell, also of Canada, and some of the directors of the Dominican Starfish Foundation, which works to build schools and homes.

“They are like family to me," Strongitharm said. "We were able to help the Dominican Starfish Foundation build two homes, provide a new floor, and deliver groceries to a handful of families.”

Strongitharm’s view of life has altered dramatically: “It’s changed my priorities of what I want out of life. I have learned that people are people no matter where or how they live or what religion they follow or the color of their skin. We all want happiness and love and opportunity. This is something I always knew, but it’s just different now. I can’t unsee what I have seen.”

For more information about Ruben's Shoes, visit rubensshoes.com. Strongitharm and Ruben’s Shoes will be returning to the Dominican Republic in 2014 with another container of shoes.

Darrel Hammon likes being outdoors, growing things and seeing things the way they could be. You can read more of his musings at darrelhammon.blogspot.com.