18 January 2010

Teacher Making a Difference One Shoe at a Time

The Olympian

A pair of canvas slip-on shoes turned into an eye-opening experience in rural Argentina for teacher Lindsey Knutzen.

Last month, Knutzen was one of a group of people selected by TOMS Shoes to travel on a nine-day “Shoe Drop.” The volunteers’ goal was to place shoes on the feet of rural Argentinian children whose families cannot afford to purchase shoes.

“I put shoes on kids who I think never had shoes,” said Knutzen, a first-grade teacher at Peter G. Schmidt Elementary. “We helped everyone from toddlers to grandparents, though we put shoes on the kids first.”

TOMS Shoes was founded by businessman and “Amazing Race” contestant Blake Mycoskie after a trip to rural Argentina. His business promise is to donate a pair of shoes to a child in need every time a pair is purchased.

TOMS spokeswoman Allison Dominguez said shoes can make a big difference for Third World children.

“Often, children cannot attend school barefoot because shoes are a required part of a student’s uniform.” Dominguez said. “If they don’t have shoes, they don’t have an education. If they don’t have an education, they don’t have access to a better tomorrow.”

The company’s nonprofit organization has provided shoes to children in Argentina, South Africa and New Orleans. It also is contributing $5 per pair purchased to Haiti disaster relief.

Dominguez said that about 2,500 pairs of shoes were given away on Knutzen’s trip. Knutzen was selected in a drawing after she entered her e-mail address on the company Web site.

The accommodations for the volunteers on her trip were very basic – no luxuries like a plasma TV or nightclubs in Buenos Aires, Knutzen said. The group was based out of Misiones, Argentina.

“Sometimes it would take an hour to 31/2 hours to get to each location,” Knutzen said. “And the roads were very rural. … We got three flat tires throughout the week.”

TOMS’ nonprofit organization works with local agencies to find families in towns and native villages that can’t afford to purchase their own shoes.

“In one of the villages I went to, they had to walk four miles to school,” Knutzen said. “They were the poorest of the poor. Some of the children, they wanted to keep the cardboard boxes. In one village, they wanted to use it under their bedding.”

She said the “alpagarta” shoes, similar to kids slippers, are common in Argentina. The donated shoes were in a variety of colors and funky patterns, but children were not picky about color and style.

“They were just grateful,” she said.

“Some of the kids, they didn’t want to wear the shoes after we put them on. It was such a treasure; they would put them in the plastic bag so they could carry them.”

Knutzen said although she doesn’t like to take time away from her first-grade class, the trip was a chance for her class to learn more about children in other parts of the world.

“The kids were excited for me,” she said. “I’m very reluctant to leave a classroom, but the whole idea was about appreciating what you have and modeling doing things for others.”

“They wanted to know what were the kids like and they learned that some of the kid’s lives are very different from theirs,” she said.

“It’s like a dream come true for a teacher to do this – putting kids shoes on those who never had shoes.”

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