LEON, Nicaragua – Everyone has had ‘that moment,’ a moment where enlightenment ravages through your life like a storm. When the storm passes, you’re left with your eyes wide open to a shattered brokenness that is only fixed by helping people. My journey to change the world recently took me to the country of Nicaragua, to put shoes on the feet of children through an organization I am the CEO of called H.U.G.S, Help Us Give Shoes.
When H.U.G.S started, 99,000 pairs of shoes ago, one of my goals was to experience one of the shoeing trips outside of the United States for myself.
This year my dream became a reality. I and Shelly Groff, my partner in peace and well-traveled missionary, got ourselves plane tickets 2889.3 miles away to
the mysterious country of Nicaragua.
When we touched down in Managua I had no idea that my whole week would be sprinkled with ‘that moment.’ When I vividly recall my time there, my mind doesn’t immediately go to the beautiful colored buildings, all red orange and yellow and full of history, I don’t think of the rustic smell of rural Nicaragua or magnificent volcanoes and mountains that lay in front of the horizon. It doesn’t immediately roam to the huge tarantulas and towering tropical trees. No, my mind first goes to big chocolate eyes and wild black hair. I remember the gentle Spanish
accents as the people smiled with hopeful expressions, pleading for nuevos zapatos – new shoes – and the experiences that the people of Nicaragua gave me.
Some of the colorful homes in Nicaragua. (O.D. Wright/YJI)
My eyes were open at a young age to the reality that so many people so close to my home have to endure. I am blessed to say my life is colored by duct-taped shoes, bare feet, and some pretty shocking living conditions. My biggest passion in life is giving those people shoes and smiles, a mission statement I developed when I was little. I’m no stranger to destitution, but when I made my first step into the dusty heat of Nicaragua, I walked into a different world.
This story is about the reality of a people who were the victims of a bloody revolution that left orphans and confusion in its wake. People who scream for fairness, but are not heard. Who when asked about their government either go shockingly quiet, or passionately loud, who include orphans with tear-stricken faces and weary parents who try to hold back emotion after their child is given shoes.
They speak to me with wide eyes as we talk about America in a mix of broken Spanish and English. I want to give a voice to these courageous people whose shouts are muffled, starting with a boy who knew too much.
I spent most of my time with orphans. I worked on a construction team digging and concreting the foundation safe home, and went on trips to visit the dumps, where families made their homes in the trash. One day I made my way up to a child snug in a lemon tree, and met my best friend, Kevin.
“Hola!” I called up.
Kevin, high up in a lemon tree. (O.D. Wright/YJI)
Wide eyes peered down at me, and he jumped down. Kevin looked at me with a small grin and tired eyes, and I noticed he was barefoot. I smiled, thinking of the bag of shoes I had up front. I quickly removed my shoes. If he was shoeless then I was going to be, too. He spoke to me in English. The smart little boy took my hand after introductions, and his eyes sparkled.
“Do you trust me?” he questioned.
I answered quickly without hesitation, “Always.”
He giggled, “Then follow me.”
The little hand pulled me along as we sprinted across a field, towering up to my waist in the ocean of golden plant life. I was nervous of the venomous spiders and tarantulas that I knew made the field their home, but I blindly followed the fiery little spirit as we made our way.
We both fell to the ground breathless and bursting with giggles as we let the tall grass cover us. After a while of talking and laughing, I rolled over to face Kevin, with a lazy grin I said, “You’re my very best friend.”
His eyes widened and he gasped, shock consumed his face before realization of the sentiment hit him. Euphoria spread over his features and chocolate eyes met my green, he whispered, “Best friend.”
Later when talking to Cheryll Shoemaker, the orphanage mother, a gentle lady with soft eyes and a hybrid Spanish/southern accent, she told me Kevin’s
story. “His parents don’t love him…. The worst part is, unlike the other children…” She trailed off. “He knows it.”
A little boy 10 years old, who knew his parents didn’t love him and starved for any kind of affection. A kid desperate for love. I loved Kevin as much as I could in a week, and before we left I noticed him sitting in a chair, unusually still for the constant ball of energy. I touched his shoulder and he slowly looked back at me. Kevin’s eyes were filled to the brim with tears the guarded child wouldn’t let fall, he gave me a wet smile.
“I love you Kevin.”
O.D. Wright sits with some of the shoes she will distribute in Nicaragua. (Shelly Groff/YJI)
His eyes drooped shut and he went quiet for a moment.
Softly he choked out, “I love you, too.”
Early in the week, I had gotten all of the shoes ready and laid out as I prepped for all I would need to serve these kids. I knew the kids would come once word got out. I sent up a quick prayer and asked God to work through me, and touch these children’s lives. I thought through my limited Spanish vocabulary in solitude.
The first little feet came padding their way over to me, a swell little boy with a huge smile. He was all set up to try on shoes when I noticed his feet were dirty. Dirty feet are not unusual in my life. The difference was the constant heat in Nicaragua.
I asked the boy for a minute as I ran inside and got a big bucket of cold water and some towels. The look of relief on his face as I massaged his bare feet with the coolness reminded me why I do H.U.G.S. That same look would pass the face of countless other children as I received the honor of washing
the feet of angels.
I met a man named Carlos, who worked construction for the home. He had a kind and timid disposition. One day after hours of work, we talked.
Carlos had lost his job, and he told me what I would hear from many other Nicaraguans, “You only move up if you are part of politics.”
He then fell sick and was hospitalized. He chuckled as he told me, “Hospital care is free, but it’s really not, nothing is free.”
He explained how he wasn’t able to buy his children anything for Christmas. Later, Shelly and I giggled with delight as we brought each of his children
Christmas gifts and a family Bible in Spanish. Later I guided him to our room and showed him the gifts that matched the interests of his children.
A single tear ran down his face, “You … you didn’t have to.”
Nicaraguan children, some homeless, some orphans and some with their mothers, all waiting to get shoes. (O.D. Wright/YJI)
“It was a gift to me, to be able to give this to you, so thank you, Carlos.”
He hugged me with a kiss on the cheek, a grown man who wept because his sweet children got nothing for Christmas, and then everything.There were so many others who touched me. One was the little girl mute from sickness who I grew to love. She found me trying to control my emotions before we left. She looked at Shelly worryingly, as if to ask ‘what’s wrong?’ Shelly told her that I’m sad I’m leaving her here. The 6-year-old baby turned to me and gave me a look fit for a mother. She reached up and hugged me, and then tiny dirty hands carefully wiped away my tears. A child who received no love herself, she had so much to give. I cried for her, for her future heartbreaks and her future achievements, I hugged her and cried for her because I knew her parents never would.
Our fellow humans are hurting. I saw children dying of malnutrition, people shunned by a cruel government, and families who had nothing but each other’s love. This is the important part: we can help them! Not only can we, but we must.
When I left Nicaragua, my team had made a noticeable difference, and you can, too. Even from the United States, by sending funds or needed goods with organizations that focus on peace, you are changing a life.
If one person is in need, then we are all in need.
O.D. Wright is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.
O.D. Wright with a Nicaraguan boy. (Shelly Groff/YJI)