By Sam Elliott
After a Geist teenager’s trip there in 2006, gifts have continued to pour into Honduras — among other parts of the world — thanks to the work of local church members to provide what millions each day take for granted.
“There was a group of high school kids that went on a mission trip to Honduras. On that mission trip, they did a number of different ministries with clothing, soccer, food distribution, helping to build a health clinic and donation distribution,” Geist resident Hank Dragoo said. “When they came back, they shared with me some of the stories, and one of the stories was at the makeshift building they were using for clothing distribution.”
Volunteers at the location had to plan ahead when it came to distributing shoes, and even then it couldn’t always handle the demand.
“They kept the door closed until they had all the clothing set up and they deliberately put the shoes in the back edge of the building farthest away from the front door because they were in the highest demand and that was the only way they could control the traffic flow of the locals when they opened the doors,” Dragoo said. “When the doors opened, everyone made a beeline to the shoes.”
So Dragoo wanted to solve the simple supply-and-demand problem.
“When they told me that story, frankly I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “There had to be something we could do to solve this. The first thing we did was figure out how we were going to gather shoes, collect them and make the donation of shoes.”
Dragoo’s nonprofit, SoleMates, has since expanded. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the charity has added deliveries to Kosovo, Togo and Niger in addition to Honduras.
“We started by connecting with the missionary in Honduras and then expanded that through Master Provisions. They’re a huge global donation distribution arm and they work in clothing and medical supplies,” Dragoo said. “They’re based out of Cincinnati and they have connected me with the missionaries in Kosovo, Togo and Niger. I’m limited to those four for now just because we can only manage so much. I’ve communicated with those missionaries directly and we keep a dialogue going.”
Dragoo doesn’t bother trying to keep track of how many shoes SoleMates has provided to those in need of footwear overseas because he knows each one counted to someone.
“We can use every pair we get. A pair of shoes changes somebody’s life,” Dragoo said. “It’s hard for us in our culture to fathom not owning a pair of shoes. It is just very difficult. If you start to think in terms of that, you start to realize it doesn’t matter if it’s one pair or 1,000 pairs. SoleMates was started as a personal donation. It’s not just 1,000 pairs of shoes — it’s one pair of shoes donated from one person to another person and donated personally.”
Shoes With Love Ties
Every recipient of a SoleMates donation receives a hand-written note attached to the new footwear.
“Each pair of shoes gets hand-signed on a tag from either the donor of the shoes, someone who sorted the shoes, someone who packed the shoes or somebody who loaded the shoes,” founder Hank Dragoo said. “And a lot of times you’ll find a tag and the tag will have a paragraph of copy written on it, and these tags are business-card sized.”
In addition to the love ties, each shoe is attached to the other, solving a problem Dragoo’s daughter witnessed firsthand when first visiting Honduras.
“It was nothing to see one family come up with a left shoe and another family come up with a right shoe and they would barter to see which family got the pair of shoes,” Dragoo said. “The only thing they had to use for bartering was food, so they would barter food to get shoes. It’s hard to fathom.
“We bind them together so we don’t have this mismatch issue happening. We zip-tie them so they don’t get separated,” he added. “The SoleMates tag that goes on each pair of shoes is more of a love note than it is anything. Each pair of shoes gets a tag that says SoleMates on it and there are six different Bible verses that are each translated into the local dialect of each of the receiving villages.”
SoleMates is collecting new and gently used pairs of shoes at Cross and Crown Lutheran Church, 5233 E. 79th St.
“That’s our home church we worship at, that’s where we’ve started SoleMates and that’s our base of operations,” founder Hank Dragoo said. “We do all the pack-and-sorts there and we do two per year, in the spring and fall. We ask that the shoes are new or gently used. We used to be limited on the climate, but now since we hit three continents we’ve got different climate zones. In the sorting, we organize them based on the destination. If we get a pair of winter boots, for example, those will end up going to Kosovo. We don’t send winter boots to Africa.”
SoleMates’ next sorting, organizing and packaging day at the church is 9 a.m. Oct. 1. From there, the shoes will take their first steps into changing someone’s life.