On April 8, 2017, over 200 women of the College Station Texas Stake Relief Society of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered for a women’s conference unlike any before.
Sometimes the smallest things in life can cause the most trouble. In Uganda, tiny fleas, commonly known as “jiggers,” are a constant health risk to the barefoot children of the region. Jiggers latch on to the children’s feet, burrow into their skin, and lay eggs. As the larva grow, it becomes difficult and painful for the children to even walk. The health implications and social stigma are devastating. In addition, the removal of jiggers is painful and has far reaching consequences. Often a thorn or pin is used by one child, then unwittingly shared with others--spreading HIV and other blood-born diseases.
The solution seems obvious; children who wash often and wear shoes can avoid jiggers. However, while life indicators show that improvements are happening in Uganda, it is still a highly impoverished country. Shoes for small children are a luxury few can afford.
A few years ago, Dru and Asher Collie, a couple with a heart for children in need, were looking to adopt an African child. They viewed a YouTube video about jiggers and the terrible impact on the children of Uganda. The Collies decided that they were going to do something. Their goal has become to eradicate jiggers, and thus, SoleHope was born.
The Collies designed a basic shoe pattern and began to organize “shoe parties.” At such “parties,” participants bring blue jeans and sturdy scissors, from which shoe-top cutouts are made. These cutouts are then bagged in sets of 10 and sent to SoleHope headquarters in North Carolina and eventually shipped to Uganda. Local Ugandans are hired by SoleHope as tailors and shoemakers to attach tire treads to the shoe tops and sew elastic on to hold the shoes in place.
In Uganda, volunteers and local employees distribute the completed shoes to children in often remote villages, while at the same time, inspecting the children’s feet for the jiggers. If needed, afflicted feet are treated and medicated. Upon receiving a properly sized pair of shoes, each child and parent is trained on foot care. In this manner, the SoleHope teams often see 150 children each day.
The impact on the children is deeply moving. The director of SoleHope in Uganda, Ian Palkovitz, noted: “I’ve watched thousands of kids get their feet washed, jiggers removed, and walk away not just with new shoes, but with knowledge that they are loved.”
As the stake Relief Society presidency prayerfully explored service opportunities and became aware of the plight of the children of Uganda, the decision was made to make the SoleHope project a big part of the annual Women’s Conference. Motivated by a desire to express Christlike love, the process began by obtaining a single shoe pattern from SoleHope.
In order to meet the challenge of involving a large number of women at the conference, many patterns were needed. Women throughout the stake were first engaged in cutting many patterns from plastic folders, as well as collecting many used jeans for the project.
As word of the project spread, enthusiasm mushroomed in anticipation of the service to be rendered to the children of Uganda. On the day of the conference, with a goal of 175 shoe tops set to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the founding of the worldwide Relief Society organization, the women worked in pairs to trace and cut 230 pairs of denim shoe tops to send to SoleHope headquarters.
Stake Relief Society President, Ann McMullin observed, “One of the purposes of Relief Society is to ‘work in unity to help those in need.’ On April 8th, the church gymnasium was filled with the happy voices of women as they gave heartfelt service to those in need. Several women expressed how haunting the pictures of the children were, and their gratitude to do something significant to help them. Yet, there was an element of joy in our purpose as we worked together to aid the unseen needy children of Uganda.”