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Vickroy: Share Your Soles founder visits Ugandan refugee camp

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Updated: May 16, 2014 6:24AM



Mona Purdy may be back from Africa but her heart still beats for the people of the Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda.

That’s OK, because if ever there were a heart big enough to envelope the world, it is Purdy’s.

Through her nonprofit, Share Your Soles, this Oak Lawn native and Richards High School graduate has helped bring shoes, crutches, wheelchairs and bicycles to some of the poorest people in some of the most primitive regions of the world.

In addition to giving them mobility, she says, her mission is to give them a future.

Purdy spent two months living in the camp, where 900,000 frightened, desperate people from Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Burundi and Ethiopia have sought shelter from violence that has plagued their homelands for years.

Nakivale is one of the oldest and largest camps in Africa. Though it provides a haven from the horrors of war, it is rapidly running low on resources. Many of the residents are sick and starving; many have horrific wounds. In addition, diseases and conditions that are almost nonexistent in the United States — malaria, leprosy and elephantiasis — are not uncommon. HIV runs rampant.

And then there is the man-inflicted damage.

One little boy from Congo, who watched as rebels slit the throats of his parents and then gang-raped his sister, walks with a severely burned foot. Before the rebels left, one picked him up and put his foot in the fire that was burning down his house, Purdy said.

“Africa is harsh. The soil is harsh, the water is harsh, the people are harsh — until you get to know them, then they are amazing,” she said.

Purdy delivered mobility products, but she also befriended the residents, chronicling their stories, playing with and reading to children and helping women across all 12 zones set up their own businesses.

Most important, before she left, she promised to come back.

“A lot of people go to Africa and say they’ll be back,” she said. “But I always come back. They know that. They know they can trust me.”

The mission of Share Your Soles goes beyond simply transporting goods. Purdy insists the way out of poverty is not begging for a handout but rather finding a way to elevate yourself.

She works with the camp’s zone chairmen to set up incentive programs for people who need shoes or other items.

Shoes may seem an afterthought to many in this country but when you don’t have them and you must walk miles each day for fresh water or when you live in danger of stepping on poisonous thorns or contracting jiggers and other diseases by walking barefoot, receiving a pair of shoes can be a life-changing event. Especially because of the lesson that comes with it.

Purdy insists, if you are able to help yourself, you should do just that.

And even though “just about everybody there is sick” in some way, from parasites, iron-laden drinking water and malnutrition, the majority of the people are willing to work for shoes.

Clear a field, plant some crops, set up a small craft business and earn some shoes. And when someone reaches a predetermined goal set by the chairman, a shoe-presentation ceremony follows.

“It is a big a deal,” Purdy said. Everyone gathers and everyone claps for the recipients.

“They walk above the ground in their shoes because they know they’ve earned them,” she said.

Purdy focuses on helping women and children first. She has found that most of the women are proud to establish independent means of support.

“They love the idea of being businesswomen,” she said. In addition to planting and farming, they make clothing, dolls, bracelets, purses, just about anything that might fill a need or want.

The items can be sold in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, but Purdy wants to expand a gift shop inside her warehouse in Chicago’s Pullman community.

Money raised from sales, as well as from her upcoming annual shoe sale at Lighthouse Church in Alsip, will help pay the costs for shipping more shoes, wheelchairs, crutches and bicycles, she said.

She still needs shoes, bicycles and medical equipment, she said, “But what I mostly need now are sponsors, to help pay to get these items from here to there.”

In addition to Uganda, she ships to Haiti, Nicaragua, Cameroon and South Dakota.

She also needs new and gently used children’s books, which will be used to establish a library inside the Nakivale camp.

Purdy offered to buy and ship a cargo container to Uganda to be used as a library, but the chairmen got together and forbade it.

“They insisted on building one for me,” she said, wiping away a tear. “They’re going to deed land to me for 99 years.”

The library will enhance the primitive education system in the camp. Students — often 50 to a single teacher — meet in crude shacks, most of which do not have desks or even decent chalkboards.

Purdy would like to improve that. She’d also like to get mountain bikes for the teachers.

Helping people help themselves, she said, is not only the way out of poverty, but the path toward making the world a fairer, safer, more hopeful place.

She practices that credo on the home front, as well. Many of the people who help at her warehouse have troubled pasts.

“I take them in, give them another chance,” she said.

Among the school groups that perform volunteer work are students from Chicago’s violence-ravaged Englewood community. They help her sort the shoes and other donations and, often, she said, upon seeing the book collection, ask if they can sit and read one, or three.

“I firmly believe most people, not all of course, but most want opportunity,” she said. “I am all about providing that.”

Purdy, who is divorced and has three grown children, grew up in Oak Lawn. She said she never really felt like she fit in and she credits several teachers at Richards High School with getting her through the tough teen years and inspiring her to follow her heart.

“If I didn’t do this, I absolutely would have been a teacher,” she said.

Looking ahead, she says she can’t picture herself enjoying any kind of traditional retirement.

“What is retirement? You plan to sit around and do nothing?” she said. “I can’t imagine a life without purpose. I am so grateful I have a life with purpose.”

She reflected for a moment and said, “I want to get old reading to children. I want to do that in Africa. I belong in Africa.”

Share Your Soles turns 15 this year.
A gala is planned at the East Bank Club in Chicago on Sept. 18.
The Share Your Soles Spring Shoe Sale will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 26 at Lighthouse Church, 4501 W. 127th St., Alsip; (708) 385-6020.

Share Your Soles is at 900 E. 103rd St., Chicago; shareyoursoles.org. For more information, email info@shareyoursoles.org or call (708) 448-4469.



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