Giving on a shoestring

[image by clarissa james]

Erica James and Arlene Hendricks, the directors of Carousel Children’s Center, with a sample of some of the hundreds of pairs of shoes collected for Malawi children.

(NY Times) What does a family daycare center in Fort Greene have to do with Malawi, an African nation known as much for its high infant mortality as for Madonna’s adoption exploits? On its face, not much, but the sinking economy has brought the two together.

The Carousel Children’s Center on Fort Greene Place is trying to grow a pile of donated, wee lil’ shoes -– some 750 pairs expected as of Monday — that are destined for Malawi. Bins are filled to the brim with tiny Old Navy canvas low-tops, dress shoes and Skechers. Baby- blue Crocs made for a 1-year-old sit in the “gently used” bin. Next to them are a little pair of red ruby slippers.

The shoes will be sent to needy children in Africa, a way of providing aid even in tough economic times.

Natasha Gordon-Chipembere, a mother of two who has one child enrolled at Carousel; her husband, Masauko Chipembere; and the rest of their family had been giving money for years to the Women’s Initiative Network Malawi, a non-governmental agency founded by Mr. Chipembere’s mother, Catherine Chipembere, a few years ago.

On a tiny budget, Catherine Chipembere feeds about 1,000 African children a day in 12 preschools built by WIN Malawi in rural Mangochi. Most of the children are between 2 and 6 years old. Several are AIDS orphans.

As the recession slowed contributions and raised WIN Malawi’s costs, the organization was beginning to feel the recessionary bite. One area of concerns was its ability to provide shoes.

Malawi is wet during the rainy season and dusty during the dry season, so shoes are more than a comfort issue. Wearing shoes lessens the likelihood of infection from the rocks, debris, glass and worms that get caught in the children’s foot padding.

Yet shoes are a rare commodity among the youngest children in Mangochi. They are often passed down from one generation to the next. Most of these kids have never owned any, and the few that do may own just tattered flip flops. “When the little ones get shoes,” said Erica James, the co-director of Carousel, “they become the most important person in the village.”

A thousand pairs can transform an entire countryside of villages. In January, Dr. Gordon-Chipembere, Ms. James, and another parent, Marie Fuer, began a campaign they call “1,000 Shoes for WIN Malawi.” They are looking for new or slightly used children’s shoes.

The center is also making the point that giving doesn’t have to stop, even during a recession.

“I don’t know if you can ask someone to donate $30 today,” said Dr. Gordon-Chipembere, an assistant professor at Medgar Evers College. “It’s extremely difficult.” But she said, “It’s tangible for people to go to Payless and give shoes.”

Mr. Chipembere will deliver the heaps of shoes, embarking on a two-day odyssey to Malawi on March 9. It’s a 10,000-mile journey from JFK, across multiple continents and using two different air carriers.

When Mr. Chipembere arrives, he hopes to set up a Skype conference between Carousel and the schools in Malawi. Considering the terrain, the time difference and lack of infrastructure, that may be a tall order. But communication is an important goal of the project.

“A thousand shoes is great,” Dr. Gordon-Chipembere said, “but we really want to set up a partnership with these schools.”

All of this, though – the shoes, the trip, Skype – was in doubt because of the expense of Mr. Chipembere’s trip alone. That’s when Ms. Fuer, another parent, stepped in.

“She’s the sort of person that if she hears you sneeze, she won’t stop till she finds you a tissue,” Ms. James said.

Ms. Fuer approached her boss. Stephen Gatfield, CEO of Lowe Worldwide, a global advertising agency, who agreed to donate 80,000 frequent flier miles to the effort — something he could do, even in a shrinking economy.

“Everybody’s been affected by the economy and it’s forced us to be a little more creative,” Ms. Fuer said. “We’re all just one step away from needing help.”

But that, she said, has created a new level of empathy. “The people want to give now more than ever,” she said.

The drive is open to anyone with a check or a pair or two of children’s shoes to spare. Mail or drop off donations to:
Erica James
Children’s Carousel Center
96 Ft. Greene Place
Brooklyn, N.Y. 11217