Project in Kannapolis supplies some 950 with shoes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 5, 2011

KANNAPOLIS — As Wanda Houston crouched on the gymnasium floor and gently washed the size 9 feet of Irvin Garcia, she teased the 13-year-old that maybe his wife would do the same for him someday.
In a few minutes, the middle-schooler walked away with clean feet, and a new pair of socks and shoes. No one had ever washed his feet before.
“Now he has expectations,” Houston said. “Sorry, ladies.”
Taken aback at first by all the attention, Garcia warmed to the proceedings and said his mother especially will like his new shoes, “because she didn’t have to pay for them.”
A Coca-Cola sales representative from Charlotte, Houston washed the feet of several of the roughly 950 Kannapolis school children who came to the Cannon Memorial YMCA Wednesday afternoon and left with a pair of shoes and socks.
“Sharing and showing a kid you’re humble enough to wash his feet — that’s glory enough for me,” Houston said.
Samaritan’s Feet, the nonprofit, humanitarian-aid organization based in Charlotte, combined forces with Coca-Cola, Kannapolis Schools and the YMCA for the “Shoes of Hope” distribution Wednesday.
It was a service project for 400 Coca-Cola sales representatives meeting Wednesday and today at the Embassy Suites in Concord.
When these Coca-Cola representatives from 11 states meet in one place (usually twice a year), they spend the afternoon of their first day participating in a community service project.
They used their three-hour window Tuesday to ride charter buses to the Kannapolis YMCA and take part in the massive shoe distribution for needy kids in the Kannapolis school system, ages 3 to 14.
The Y’s gymnasium floor had 150 stations where the kids’ feet were washed. Each of those stations had a Coca-Cola washer and runner. So at a minimum, the floor often had 450 people in various states of soaking, washing and running back and forth for the new pairs of shoes.
Along the side, other Coca-Cola employees were manning huge barrels to supply fresh water, or collecting the used water. In addition, sales representatives were individually escorting more children into the gymnasium for their foot-washing and shoes, or walking them back toward the buses.
“If we do the best job possible,” said Phil Campbell, associate director of domestic operations for Samaritan’s Feet, “it’s organized chaos.”
Campbell said the shoe distributions — he has participated in at least 200 across the country — send a message of hope. It tells the kids, he added, there are people who care, there’s a God in heaven and he has a plan for their lives.
“Some kids haven’t ever had a positive word spoken to them,” Campbell said.
Ron Davis, chief executive officer of Cannon Memorial YMCA, said that out of 1,300 needy children identified in the Kannapolis school system, 926 signed up, but he expected more than those to end up with new shoes.
When Samaritan’s Feet went looking for a place to accommodate Coca-Cola’s massive service project, the YMCA had the space, and the schools had the children in need.
“It was an absolutely perfect partnership among the three of us,” Davis said.
Sara Rubens, director of development for Samaritan’s Feet, said the sad truth is that finding the 1,000 children in need of shoes is never difficult.
The unusual aspects of this shoe distribution were its happening in the middle of the week, the involvement of 400 volunteers and only a three-hour window of opportunity before those Coca-Cola representatives had to return to their meeting venue.
Ellen Boyd, director of community relations for Kannapolis Schools, said the logistics were complicated for the school system, too. It had to be an after-school, voluntary project, and the challenge became how to coordinate the transportation of kids back and forth from the YMCA, while also leaving enough drivers and buses for the normal bus routes home.
Activity buses used to bring the children to the YMCA were not allowed to deliver children to their homes afterward, so they had to return to school, where staff had to be in place and they had to be sure children got home.
Many staff members, parents and volunteers helped, Boyd said.
But from the beginning of planning, Boyd added, it was never a question of whether it could happen but how and when to make it work. Samaritan’s Feet essentially approached the YMCA and said, “Get us the kids,” and the schools took it from there, Boyd said.
Davis said Cannon Memorial YMCA board member Ann Schrader put Samaritan’s Feet in touch with him. “I’ve heard about them for so long,” Davis said, “It’s great to meet them this way.”
Samaritan’s Feet has provided shoes for nearly 3 million impoverished children in more than 40 countries. The organization follows a principle that the simple act of humility of washing a child’s feet and giving him shoes expresses love, compassion and a gospel message of hope.
Kannapolis-based Shoe Show provides many pairs of shoes to the worldwide effort. The brands of numerous sneaker companies were in evidence Wednesday.
The washers worked with blue gloves out of white basins, injecting a few drops of soap into the water for the foot-washing. The runners learned the kids’ shoe size from either their orange wristbands or stickers placed on their chests.
During the foot-washing, the runners scooted behind a screen toward the back of the gymnasium, where boxes of various-sized shoes were waiting to be grabbed.
Most of the kids opted to keep their new shoes and socks in a furnished pouch and return the old shoes to their feet for the trip home.
Areli Garcia, 12, received a new pair of pink Converse sneakers.
“It was really nice,” she said, adding that she appreciated Houston’s explaining why Coca-Cola and Samaritan’s Feet were doing this.
Jessica Garcia, 12, described it as “a new experience,” having her feet washed. And her friend, Stephanie Vega, said, “I think it’s a good idea for everyone to have a chance to get new shoes.”
Raleigh Coca-Cola representatives Andy Collins and Thomas Chilton worked as a team, with Collins the washer and Chilton the runner.
Collins said he found the exercise emotional at times. As he washed, he asked the children about their siblings, how old they were, how they liked school, what their favorite subjects were and what kind of sports they liked.
He found several of the children talkative. “I think they really enjoyed it,” Collins said.
Chilton said he was having a great time.
“It’s good for these kids,” he added. “It’s uplifting.”
Contact Mark Wineka at or 704-797-4263.