I was kinda looking around for something to do for Thanksgiving. I had no big Thanksgiving family dinner to go to or anything like that, and I wasn’t really looking forward to spending the day alone. Then I saw that one of my Facebook friends was looking for volunteers to help out at the Gospel Rescue Mission’s Thanksgiving Street Dinner. That sounded sort of interesting, and I wasn’t doing anything else, so I figured why not?
The Gospel Rescue Mission is one of the larger homeless shelters here in town, and I was vaguely aware that they put on a big Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, the poor, and pretty much everyone else who doesn’t have anybody to spend the holiday with. Coincidently I had seen a little “teaser” article in the newspaper inviting folks to come on down if they so desired. The article said they were planning to serve about 2500 free meals, so it was a little bit bigger an event than I had thought. The more I considered it, the more excited I became about the whole idea.
Specifically, my friend had asked if I might help out with The Tribe – Tucson’s annual shoe give-away. The Tribe is an interesting group and I’d been half-way following them, but I had never participated in any of their events. They aren’t like a big formal charity or anything, and they don’t get any government grants or funding. Basically they’re just a small group of people who’ve decided to do whatever they can do to make the community a little better place. Somehow they always manage to raise just barely enough money, and they have a knack at drawing in volunteers. From what I’ve seen they really do make a difference.
We take our shoes too much for granted, I think. We all pretty much have a least one pair of decent shoes which fit properly, and we never give them a second thought. But I would soon learn that there are a lot of people out there for whom a good pair of shoes is a real luxury. It could be a homeless person living on the streets, or a kid whose mom just can’t afford new shoes as fast as her little feet grow. And a poorly-fitting pair of shoes is more than just an annoyance – it can lead to some serious health problems.
I arrived a few hours early, while they were still setting up the event. The police had roped off the entire street in front of the Mission so it’s like a big block-party affair. In addition to all the tables there were tents for a dozen or so social-service agencies. You could get a free haircut, if you wanted one, or some warm winter clothing, and our shoes, of course. You could also sign up for an Obamaphone, and you could get a free AIDS test if for some reason you were at risk for that. They were even setting up for a live band for dinner-time entertainment.
My friend had told me to expect lots of shoes, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw! We had literally thousands of pairs, all types, all styles, all sizes. They were all donated. Most were used, but there were a few brand-new pairs in the mix that folks had bought and then donated. It took us well over an hour to lay them all out on the parking lot, and when we were done there were shoes just about as far as you could see in any direction. It was impressive!
Once they were all laid out we toyed with the idea of organizing them all, but it quickly became clear that categorizing them by size was going to be impossible. There were just too many shoes! They had already come presorted, so we had a men’s section, and a women’s and a kid’s. We did end up doing some rudimentary sorting. We put all the work boots in one area, and all the flats (sandals, flip-flops, and the like) in another. We had a few hundred pairs of women’s dress shoes, high heels mostly, but we didn’t set those out because we had run out of room on the pavement. We still had them though, if anybody asked.
We opened up our outdoor “showroom” about 10am and there were already a fair number of people waiting in line. The rules were that everybody got one pair of shoes. You could also have a second pair of things we didn’t consider “real” shoes, so those were the ones like the sandals, flip-flops, and slippers. For the most part we held people to that, but there were some exceptions. Some folks said they were also shopping for their kids, or their elderly parent, or a home-bound friend and we pretty much took them at their word. We let them in a few at a time, because the idea was that there’d be a volunteer to assist every one of them, to help them find the right pair. And, of course, one big reason for the volunteers was to keep people moving along. With the number of people we expected we couldn’t afford to have people just browsing around for hours. Show them shoes, find them shoes, and move ’em out! That was the name of the game. I kept thinking the line would go down, but it actually got longer as the day went on. It wasn’t too unusual to have 75 or 100 people waiting in line for a new pair of shoes.
I found I liked working with the kids the best. They’re really fun, but they sure can be picky as hell about their shoes! Many of the kids didn’t speak much English, and my high-school Spanish classes were a few decades ago, but somehow we communicated. In a way it was really sad. I saw kids come in without any shoes at all to speak of, just some sort of wrappings around their feet. And I also saw kids with ugly, bleeding blisters from shoes they were wearing which were a size or two too small. The look on their faces when they stood up in a new pair of shoes, and they didn’t hurt, was priceless! That made it all worthwhile.
Overall we gave out over 2000 pairs of shoes in about five hours, and the Mission served about 3000 Thanksgiving dinners. I like to think that maybe I was a small part of making life a little better for a few folks. Like I said, I think most of us just take our shoes for granted, but there are people out there who really do suffer because they don’t have a decent-fitting pair to wear. And it’s only because of groups like The Tribe they are able to get some good shoes. I really have to respect the folks who can make that happen, and the hundreds of others behind the scenes who were generous and donated. I’m already looking forward to doing it again next year!