They're Never Just Shoes

by Amir Khan
 
Carrie Bradshaw is an example of a woman who has never had to worry about the shoes on her feet. Living in a moderately priced, rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan, Carrie was free to purchase all the Manolos her heart desired. This fairytale, while true for some living in Boca Raton, could not be farther from reality for most.

In the heart of Delray Beach lies Village Academy, a community school running from Pre-K to 12th grade with on-site childcare. All those who attend Village Academy are considered at-risk children who live at or below the poverty line. Village Academy is one of the schools Barbara Haider works with, and she has seen her fair share of heartbreak, including with a girl named Mikaela whose own mother could not afford to purchase for her.

Mikaela, a young girl of about 8, owned a pair of sneakers she used for every occasion: school, playing outside, walking to a friend’s home, and everything in-between. One afternoon while walking home from the bus stop in the rain, Mikaela’s sole tore, rendering her shoes unwearable. Understandably upset, she immediately told her mother, who appeared unbothered and said she would purchase Mikaela a new pair by the end of the following week. In the meantime, Mikaela’s mother directed her to a shoe closet, where the only other pair of shoes that fit her were a pair of slippers and some ugly sandals. This is where our story picks up:

Next week comes and goes. Mikaela’s mom seems stressed to the younger girl’s eyes: the bills have come in, and she can’t decide which to pay now and which to put off. It is a monthly ritual at this point, and Mikaela can’t get a word in to remind her mom of the promise she made to get her new shoes…

During a lunch break on Wednesday, Mikaela wanders over to Ms. Haider’s office. The older woman greets her with an embrace and closes the door (“Hi, Mikaela! Please, sit”), rolling her chair past the desk and over to Mikaela’s side.
“Now, what can I do for you, dear?”
“Uh, I need—do you have, it’s okay if you don’t—shoes.” Mikaela watches as Ms. Haider surveys her insufficient shoes.
“Your shoes look fine to me,” she replies, trailing off a bit at the end and looking up to make eye contact with Mikaela. At this, Mikaela stands, turns her back to Ms. Haider, and lifts her feet swiftly, one after the other, thumping the ground with each foot—all in one fluid movement. Then, she watches as Ms. Haider’s jaw drops, tears bursting from the older woman’s eyes as if someone has hooked her tear ducts and pulled.
“Why didn’t you say anything until now? How long has it been?”
“It hasn’t been that long. You don’t have to cry, Ms. Haider. They’re just shoes. I’m fine, honest.”
Mikaela finds Ms. Haider, eyes still streaming, reaching for her hands and giving them a light squeeze. Mikaela is led by the older woman down a couple hallways until they reach a locked room. Ms. Haider fusses with a keychain; eventually, the door swings open, and the duo walk inside. The older woman gestures weakly at the far wall.
“These shoes are for you. For anyone who needs them, really. Go on, don’t be shy. I know they’re not the prettiest, but whatever you find in your size is yours.” Mikaela doesn’t wait for her to finish; she is already running her fingers all over the shoes, pulling them off the shelves to check the sizes. She starts putting on the first size six pair she finds.
“Are you sure you want those?”
“Yes,” she replies, beaming. “These are mine now, right? Or is this just to borrow?”
“No, sweetie. They’re yours.” Ms. Haider returns Mikaela’s smile, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with a ring finger.
“They fit great!” Mikaela breaks into a run, leaving the room and heading to the end of the hallway, where a set of glass double doors lead outside, into the track field. Ms. Haider reaches the doors as they are shutting and watches Mikaela hop a fence and sprint onto the track, arms raised in the air. A reproach dies in her throat.  
 
While Mikaela’s story is mostly fictional, the sentiment is not: this scenario is one Barbara Haider sees all too often working in Title I schools and thus calls for the generosity of nonprofits and the community alike. Shoes are not just a fashion statement or an accessory: they are a necessity for proper protection against the elements as well as for sanitary reasons. To learn more about In Jacob’s Shoes or to find a drop-off location for shoes, please visit In Jacob's Shoes or email info@spiritofgivingnetwork.com.