Vickroy: Just back from Africa, Mona Purdy steps up campaign
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy December 5, 2012 3:32PM
Mona Purdy, founder of Share Your Soles, gestures while describing the new warehouse space she now uses at 900 E. 103rd Street in Chicago, Chicago, IL on Tuesday December 4, 2012. They moved into the former train factory building in September. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 7, 2013 7:06AM
Since we last spoke with Mona Purdy in July, the founder of the Share Your Soles nonprofit group has been especially busy, even by her high-energy standards.
She’s opened a new warehouse in Chicago’s Pullman community, run a marathon, shipped a 40-foot container of shoes to Africa and helped deliver a baby by Caesarean section in a makeshift Uganda hospital.
“I almost passed out,” she said about the last feat.
Almost doesn’t count for Purdy, a former resident of Oak Lawn and graduate of Richards High School. She walks into the most remote, most underprivileged areas of the world with gusto and a determination to give needy people the tools they need to help themselves. She encourages others to follow in her footsteps by simply donating some shoes.
“If people want to change the world all they have to do is start,” she said.
She did just that in 1999 when she started Share Your Soles.
Since then, she has been shipping to 12 countries. Many of the shoes she hands out were donated by people in the Southland and across the Chicago area. But her job description is ever-evolving.
“It starts with shoes but it doesn’t end there,” she said.
She also distributes bicycles, walkers and canes. Lately, she’s put out special requests for mosquito nets, soccer balls, bed sheets and children’s books, all items the people living in refugee camps desperately need.
“Did I mention I do hospice?” she said while showing off her new digs. “Here in the U.S. and in Africa.”
Why doesn’t that surprise us?
More important than bringing supplies, she says, is distributing hope.
“Hope is something everyone needs, the poor most of all,” she said.
She doesn’t discriminate when it comes to helping those who need it. She hauls goods to Haiti as willingly as she takes them to Chicago’s Englewood community.
By all accounts, the woman who had one of the most trying years of her life — during which she lost her home in a fire, her donated Alsip warehouse to a paying renter and her adopted mother to cancer — has bounced back with fury.
“Every bad thing that happened, only good has come of them,” she said.
Her new warehouse, which she says “was an eyesore” when she moved there in September, already is organized into furnished rooms. Art hangs on the walls. There’s even a zen garden out front and a party room in the back.
She organizes the shoes, walkers, bicycles and other mobility aids that easily number into the thousands in sections inside the 100,000-square-foot facility, which once was used to build Pullman rail cars.
And she’s working on getting “nongovernmental organization” status with the United Nations for her nonprofit group.
“I’m going back to Uganda in the spring,” she said. She’s going to live for a time in Camp Nakivali, a refugee camp for displaced people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Rwanda and the Congo.
“The camp is the worst of the worst,” she said. “It is hell.”
There is hunger, sickness, desperation and unspeakable crime. It is not uncommon for children to be castrated or raped.
There is a lot of horror there, she said.
But there aren’t any shoes.
“They’re crazy about shoes,” she said. Shoes will become a currency, as well as an incentive to work, because Purdy will only give them to people who agree to farm. There isn’t much the refugees can do to improve their situation, but they can grow fruits and vegetables, she said.
During her two weeks there, she worked with local officials to dedicate a site for farming. On the first day of the program, 90 women signed up. The next day, there were 300.
Meanwhile, back in Illinois, she continues to partner with Secretary of State Jesse White, a relationship she’s enjoyed for 13 years. Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart also is working on her behalf. Both officials organize collection sites and drives for Share Your Soles.
So do many local schools.
And the Southland volunteers who used to help sort, clean and organize the shoes and supplies in Alsip still are coming, even though her new location hardly is convenient.
Purdy said she is perhaps most proud of her ability to draw white suburbanites to this not-so-manicured section of the city along East 103rd Street.
Even her dad, Ed Stangel, who lives in Palos Heights, helps out. “He’s our senior adviser,” she said.
Purdy embraces just about everyone who walks through her doors, whether they’re working off court-mandated community service or because they want to buy a pair of hand-beaded sandals she brought back from Uganda.
“I believe you can do whatever you want to do, once you put your mind to it,” she said.
Even assist with surgery.
She was hanging with a Ugandan doctor near Kampala when he got word a woman was in need of his services.
They hopped into a Jeep marked with a simple cross — a Ugandan ambulance — and drove to the empty cement room when the pregnant woman labored.
“He fired up a generator, then a lamp went on,” Purdy said. The physician administered an epidural and asked Purdy to hold the clamps that pulled back the woman’s skin so he could get to the baby. That’s when Purdy felt a wave of queasiness, but she held on.
“He pulled out the baby, cut the cord, suctioned the mouth and nose and handed the infant to the family,” she said. No medical tests, no bath, no bassinet.
“They wrapped that baby in a rag,” Purdy said. “That’s why I’m now collecting baby blankets. No baby should be placed in a rag.”
She is seeking donations of soccer balls, mosquito nets, hoes, baby blankets, children’s books and, of course, shoes. In addition, she needs cash to help with shipping costs.
“When you’re thinking about all the silly unnecessary stuff you’ll be buying this Christmas, think about the people who don’t even have blankets to wrap their newborns in,” she said.
For more information, contact Share Your Soles, 900 E. 103rd St., Chicago; call (708) 448-4469; or visit shareyoursoles.org.