Somewhere in a Third World country, there is most likely a little child wearing a sturdy pair of colorful sandals, thanks to the generosity of a tourist at the Cave of the Winds and the hard work of local volunteers.
And somewhere on Niagara Falls’ Main Street, the volunteers who send those shoes to the shoeless around the world will get a much needed infusion of energy from the university up the road.
The program has volunteers collect the gently used flip flops worn by visitors to the New York State Park’s Cave of the Winds and sort, disinfect, package and send them out to those in need. But, there are currently mountains of bags of shoes waiting to be sorted and sent.
Juliette Thomas, the founder and director of the project since 2002, has been sending about 300,000 pairs of the shoes each year to places including Senegal, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Romania and India. Her only help is provided largely by students and adults who come to the city from other parts of the U.S. to do works of service. That source of energy is about to end as the international YouthWorks program ceases its annual visits to the region after this summer. The project will endure, however, because Niagara University is stepping in to assist.
Thomas, struggling with her health, will get fortification from a new institute at Niagara University, created to expand NU’s presence in Niagara Falls.
“Juliette’s an amazing woman, but she’s a one-woman show,” said David Taylor, the university’s director of civic engagement.
Not only will the college be able to provide a full student body of potential volunteers, but the Vincentian order that founded the university has a presence in 80 countries, Taylor said.
“I think we can expand the number of outlets that get these sandals,” he said.
The program, currently using the former department store space donated by local developer Richard Hastings, is moving to a former jewelry store at the corner of Cleveland Ave. and Main St. owned by Rapids Theatre owner, John Hutchins.
Taylor is planning to entice some of the college’s business students to assist with the project so they can help with developing “supply chain management” processes to more efficiently get the shoes to those who need them. Other university students will be encouraged to help as well, Taylor said.
In the meantime, the young people working on the sandal project for the past few weeks have been touched by the chance to serve.
“I saw a picture of the kids when they get the shoes and they’re smiling,” said YouthWorks volunteer Cassidy Burkman, 13, who was in the area with 28 young people and five adults from Minnesota.
Thomas is grateful for the university’s partnership with her program and said she has no plans to slow down, despite five strokes last year.
“I’m still here,” she said. “God had another assignment for me.”
She looked around at the hundreds of pairs of shoes being processed by the volunteers around her on the Main Street sidewalk.
“He assigned me to more shoes,” she smiled.