By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
OTTUMWA — Citizens of Ottumwa are turning old shoes into clean water.
For the past few months, Catholics and non-Catholics have donated gently used shoes to Shoeman Water Projects, a St. Louis-based nonprofit that turns recycled shoes into cash. Profits from the donations fund water purification systems, wells and safe water education projects in third-world countries.
Lisa Canny and her husband, Luke, brought the idea to Ottumwa after hearing about Shoeman Water Projects at a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game. Lisa, the religious education co-director for St. Mary of the Visitation and St. Patrick parishes in Ottumwa, decided to see if the high school youths might want to get involved and help host a community drive.
The youths were receptive and set a goal of collecting 1,700 shoes between Oct. 5 and Nov. 30, enough to buy a water purification system in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Haiti or the Dominican Republic. St. Mary of the Visitation and St. Patrick each set out boxes in their church buildings and youths put one in the religious education center. Others in the community also got involved – Seton Catholic School, the Knights of Columbus and a local florist also put out boxes.
Canny believes the multi-faceted benefits of the program got people excited. First, it is a way to recycle older shoes and keep them out of landfills. After Shoeman Water Projects collects the shoes and sells them to a wholesaler, they are sold by local street merchants in Africa, Ukraine and Central and South America, providing work and income for these individuals. The shoes are sold for low prices so that people living in poverty can afford to purchase shoes for themselves and their family. Finally, the profits are used for the water projects. “It’s beneficial in a four-fold way,” she said.
People donated a variety of shoes, from sneakers to dress shoes. Deacon Jim Vonderhaar of St. Mary of the Visitation donated some of his running shoes. Runners are advised to limit the miles they put on their shoes, and the shoe donation gave him a use for shoes that looked good but could no longer be used for racing.
Youths in grades 9-12 organized the shoes after the drive and prepared them for shipment by either tying shoelaces together or using rubber bands before placing them in black plastic bags. The number of shoes collected exceeded the original goal by about 400 pairs, said Canny and co-religious education director Gail Bates.
The youths were excited, and so were their directors. Canny said, “The community support was amazing. We were nervous at first — 1,700 pairs of shoes is a lot. But obviously they were out there and people were so generous to give toward our project. Seeing people come together to support the cause was amazing. It was a community effort!”