He Doesn’t Have Any Shoes

Lily Shaffer - Ecuador


March 17, 2011

Meet Darwin Montoya. He’s eight, the third child in his family. He has three brothers and two sisters.  He was one of my students in Refuerzo and one of my Kids with Cameras participants.  He’s the first one I told about Kids with Cameras.

He came to pick up his siblings, Camila and Camilo, from the Centro Infantil.  He had on one of his brother’s trucker caps—you know a Montoya when there’s a kid with a bright hat slung sideways, fastened to be too small for their heads so that it rests on top.  While waiting outside the gate, I asked him if he wanted to learn how to use a camera and start documenting his life.

Darwin (right) and his oldest brother, Yeider, pose with their cameras just before heading off as photographers for 24 hours

Wide eyed, he stuttered, “I get to take the camera home with me? I get to keep it?”

“Sure do. Twenty four hours and it’s all yours.”

“What do I have to do to do it?”

“Just need your mom’s—“

Too late. Darwin was already halfway down the street, sprinting to his home a few blocks away.

Ten minutes later, Darwin came back with Sandra, his Mamá, and his little sister.  I patiently explained the project to Sandra, who loved the idea of her four oldest children having an after school program. Darwin was dancing from side to side, his little toes poking out of his battered shoes, surely hand-me-downs from one of his older brothers. His eyes were bulging, looking back and forth between his mamá and me for her approval, letting out little shrieks of excitement between breaths.

Fast forward to the first camera lesson.  Somehow, even the refugees I hadn’t been able to get in touch with were there. Once again, I am amazed by the interconnectedness of the refugees I work with.  As we started, though, I realized Darwin was missing.

“¿Dónde está?” I asked his siblings.

“Oh, he doesn’t have shoes,” they casually chimed, and dove back into questioning when they would finally get to use the cameras.

The next day, Darwin was still missing. Again, I asked where he was.

“He doesn’t have shoes. He has to stay at home all day until he has shoes.”

Fast forward a week. Darwin shows up to the final meeting before the first students received their cameras.  He was wearing worn out sandals, the kind my Papá wears when he’s hanging around the house. The Velcro was losing its strength, all forlorn at the edges.  It wasn’t until then that it hit me.

Darwin didn’t go to school for three days because he had bare feet. How can that happen? He’s an eight year old in the second grade—as of four months ago, he was two years behind though, because there wasn’t a schooling option in Colombia. If he hopes for an education—and he’s told me he has—he can’t afford to miss three days in a row because he doesn’t have shoes to wear.

Tom’s Shoes? That’s a pretty good social enterprise.  I bought a pair of overpriced, mid-quality Tom’s shoes (incredibly comfortable, though) because it seemed like it was an easy way to help.  I’m a huge supporter of Tom’s and I think it’s an extremely innovative idea.  But I didn’t really get their intention, the motive behind such a clever, booming enterprise.

Now I get it.

Shoes.  We take them for granted. I bet you have three pairs in your closet you didn’t know about, and at least three or four more you haven’t worn in three months or more. Shoes, to me, are an accessory. I have a killer pair of heels from prom, two pairs of converse, lots of flip flops and far too many Birkenstocks.  Shoes were the subject of one of the biggest viral youtube videos.  I, as well as probably everyone I know in the States, take shoes for granted. But for Darwin?

For Darwin, shoes protect his feet. When he walks to school, they protect his feet from cuts. And if he does have a cut, shoes stop him from getting an infection. Soil transmitted diseases are one of the leading causes of sickness in developing countries.  Shoes are required to enter a tienda or a restaurant. Shoes allow Darwin to go grocery shopping with his Mamá.  Going to school without shoes is embarrassing enough for an Ecuadorian—never mind the fact that the xenophobia knit into most Ecuadorian’s bones against Colombians is a constant source of exclusion for Darwin. To me, shoes are an expression of identity. For Darwin, shoes express class. We’re not talking about Lucky Jeans or French Connection shirts or North Face jackets—we’re talking a simple, cheap expression—bare or covered feet. Can your family afford shoes or not?

Shoes.  Something so simple protects us from sickness, includes kids in social scenes, and helps provide an education. As Tom’s founder Blake Mycoskie put it, “Many times children can’t attend school barefoot… if they don’t have shoes, they don’t go to school. If they don’t receive an education, they don’t have the opportunity to realize their potential.”

I think it’s time that a four dollar pair of shoes became part of every kid’s wardrobe, every kid’s education, and every kid’s potential.

Lily Shaffer