Students shed shoes for needy children

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Participants in the TOMS Shoes’ One Day Without Shoes carried posters, handed out stickers and walked barefoot to the state capitol. Photo by Krista Vogel, NewsNetNebraska

More than 22 city blocks. More than 200 feet – bare, sore, blistered feet.

Last week, more than 100 University of Nebraska-Lincoln students hoofed it from the Student Union to the capitol building. Although anyone could participate, they had to abide by one condition: no shoes allowed. The barefoot group was walking to raise awareness for children in need through the third annual, worldwide TOMS Shoes’ One Day Without Shoes. This year, more than 250,000 people – roughly the entire population of Lincoln – participated in 1,600 events around the world.

“We’re promoting what people go through without shoes,” said UNL communications studies major Carley Juilfs, 21. “A pair of shoes can change their lives.”

TOMS Shoes, which donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair purchased, celebrated One Day Without Shoes on April 8. From May 2006 to April 2010, TOMS has donated more than 600,000 pairs of shoes to needy children. These children are in danger of soil-transmitted diseases like podoconiosis, which weakens and disfigures the feet from walking barefoot on volcanic soil. They are also vulnerable to infections from cuts and sores. Some cannot attend school because they can’t afford the shoes that are a part of their uniform.

Throughout the late afternoon, supporters succeeded in drawing attention to the cause. With large TOMS signs, stickers, slogans like “one day” and “one day without shoes” and peace signs drawn on their feet, the group temporarily took over downtown Lincoln. Some bystanders stared. Others dared to ask what the marchers were up to. A few drivers honked their horns in appreciation.

Days earlier, campus representatives like Juilfs spent time advertising the event through a Facebook group, word of mouth, flyers and a booth at the union.

Spreading the word before the event was easiest through the social media monster known as Facebook. The TOMS Shoes of Lincoln group – 437 members strong – created an event page for One Day Without Shoes, and word spread like wildfire.

“I saw the Facebook group and started e-mailing my friends,” said Mason Lien, 21, a pre-med Spanish major at Nebraska Wesleyan. “Then it was just a domino effect.”

Lien didn’t stop there, though. He helped put up signs on campus and spread the word of mouth. He wore his TOMS, too.

He heard about TOMS shoes through a friend now in Africa. After looking into the cause, Lien realized what a difference the company could make. For him, One Day Without Shoes really hit home.

“I’ve been on mission trips before and been to poverty-stricken areas where kids have no shoes,” he said.

So, poster in hand, “one day” written on his feet, he set out with fellow TOMS supporters to raise awareness. But Lien goes beyond the event, beyond the TOMS. He’s now planning a shoe drive at his church to send shoes to poor children.

“I think it’s really awesome how many people are aware and want to spread awareness,” he said. “As a city and as a community, we can use our resources to help others. Even though we’re not living on the same continent, we can still help them.”

Participants showed their dedication to the cause, not only by taking off their shoes, but by making the event a top priority.

“I skipped lab for this,” Lien said. “My professor was like, ‘Where are you going?’ And I just said, ‘I’ve got to go!’”

And go, he did – all day, no shoes.

“It was rough,” said Lien. “I cut my foot a few times. It was a good realization of what these kids go through.”

Tyson Johnson, 20, a UNL political science major, walked to one class without shoes, but didn’t go inside the classroom barefoot.

“Definitely, even if people don’t know what we’re doing, we’re drawing attention to a good cause,” he said.

And what will become of this good cause? In the big picture, will it make any difference?

“I don’t know how much impact this will make,” said Michael Shepherd, a 20-year-old UNL Spanish education major, “but it’s better than nothing.”

Story by Krista Vogel, NewsNetNebraska

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