By Phellisha Dobson
and Jenny Neyman
In a poverty-stricken area of Nicaragua, where owning anything beyond a pair of flip-flops would be a mark of prosperity, school outfits do double duty. If a child attends school in the morning, they pass their school clothes and shoes off to a sibling for afternoon wear. After a visit from Soldotna Rotary Club members last spring break, bearing a donation from a local business, 100 kids got to share the wealth, but no longer had to share their shoes.
Soldotna Rotary wrote a grant for $105,000 to send 140 wheelchairs to Nicaragua and raised money to work on houses in the Masaya area. Over spring break, eight volunteers traveled the 8,000 miles to the country, with three containers of wheelchairs and suitcases stuffed with 100 pairs of shoes donated by Foot Flare ’N’ Wear.
“It’s just neat how a business in little Soldotna, Alaska, can bless kids 8,000 miles away. The rewards are endless. It’s just neat to see that love,” said Soldotna Rotary member Chuck Cook.
Foot Flare ’N’ Wear opened in June 2008 in Soldotna by podiatrist Dr. Harry Cotler and wife, Lisa, to offer stylish yet foot-healthy footwear, along with clothing and accessories. After a busy summer and autumn season, the Cotlers found they had extra stock left over. Around that time, Dr. Cotler, a Rotary Club member, heard about the upcoming trip to Nicaragua.
“The timing just worked out for everything,” Dr. Cotler said. “Instead of keeping the inventory here until the following season, we just felt that it would be humbling to donate these shoes to a community that needed them. They’re new shoes. They’re not hand-me-down shoes. They don’t have to share the shoes; it was just a humbling gesture on our part to do that.”
In Nicaragua, 10 percent of the population needs wheelchairs, Cook said, and adequate housing is a challenge to provide. While in Nicaragua, Soldotna Rotary members worked on 11 houses, distributed 200 to 300 outfits and the 100 pairs of shoes.
“It’s almost unbelievable for us to put into words how blessed they are when they get a new pair of shoes, because if you go to their house they have no extra clothes. They have no other pairs of shoes. They have no toys. They have no refrigerator. A pair of shoes is extremely important,” Cook said. “Every time I go down there, I’m reminded that we don’t have the right to complain about nothing. We don’t have the right to complain about food, bad roads, we have it so good.”
Getting the shoes to Nicaragua took some creative packing, split among the volunteers’ extra suitcases, so it wouldn’t look like they were bringing merchandise for re-sale that they would have to pay taxes on.
“The shoes that they (Foot Flare ’N’ Wear) donated couldn’t be bought or purchased anywhere in Nicaragua,” Cook said. “In that culture, if you’ve got something besides flip-flops, I wouldn’t say you’re wealthy, but you’re well off.”
Apart from the shoe donation, Foot Flare ’N’ Wear also helps support other things in the community, including the Kenai River Brown Bears, local schools and athletics programs, the Rotary Unity Run, the Kenai River Marathon and Kenai Performers’ Curtain Call consignment store in Kenai.
Soldotna Rotary members plan to return to Nicaragua in November.
“We tried to explain to them that we’re from Alaska,” Cook said. “They have no words for moose. They think we have penguins up here. They think we live in igloos, the typical stuff. It’s pretty neat for them to see we came from the ice, all the way from the North Pole.”
Phellisha Dobson is a student at River City Academy at Skyview High School and did an internship for The Redoubt Reporter. Thanks, Phellisha!