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updated: 7/29/2013 9:50 AM

West Chicago church collects shoes to help Kenya, Haiti

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  • The First United Methodist Church of West Chicago designed its float in the West Chicago Railroad Days parade as an orange high-top shoe in support of its goal of collecting and donating 5,000 shoes to Shoeman Water Projects.

      The First United Methodist Church of West Chicago designed its float in the West Chicago Railroad Days parade as an orange high-top shoe in support of its goal of collecting and donating 5,000 shoes to Shoeman Water Projects.
    Courtesy First United Methodist Church of West Chi

  • Members of the Green Disciples, a group of church members devoted to educating the community about recycling and other environmental issues, bag shoes for the First United Methodist Church of West Chicago.

      Members of the Green Disciples, a group of church members devoted to educating the community about recycling and other environmental issues, bag shoes for the First United Methodist Church of West Chicago.
    Courtesy First United Methodist Church of West Chi

 
By Sean Hammond
shammond@dailyherald.com

It's probably not surprising somebody who goes by the nickname "The Shoeman" collects shoes. Lots and lots of shoes.

Fact is, George "The Shoeman" Hutchings is the kind of guy who could make Carrie Bradshaw jealous, the kind of guy who would have made Imelda Marcos insist on another closet, the kind of guy who could still make Michael Jordan ...

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Well, you get it.

Over the past five years, Hutchings has collected 3.5 million pounds of shoes, all with the goal of helping provide clean drinking water to people in need.

He started Shoeman Water Projects in 2008 after he learned to drill for water and realized it was a skill he could use to help others.

So now The Shoeman collects shoes and sells them to an exporter, who in turn sells them in Kenya and Haiti. The project creates jobs for the poor in Kenya and Haiti and provides cheap shoes for villagers, who sometimes have to walk miles just to collect water (often contaminated) for their families.

Hutchings takes the profits from the shoes and purchases water-well drilling rigs and water purification systems that are used to give Kenyans and Haitians access to clean and close water.

This year, Shoeman Water Projects -- based in the St. Louis area -- has collected more than 440,000 pairs of shoes. And the First United Methodist Church of West Chicago is hoping to add 5,000 pairs to that total by fall.

The church began its campaign in May 2012 and so far has collected more than 4,000 pairs. It hopes to reach its goal by September.

"It's an opportunity to keep shoes out of the landfills," said Judi Horsley, chairwoman of the church council. "It provides fresh water to places that don't have fresh water. Right now, children who don't have a well can walk up to 10 miles each way for water that's not even clean.

"When a village does get a well, they (the children) can start going to school. It changes life dramatically."

For a church like First United Methodist, which has only 215 members, a goal of collecting 5,000 pairs of shoes is a daunting one. It wouldn't be enough just to have the congregation -- Horsely says average Sunday attendance is around 100 -- donating. It needed the help of the community.

The church asked community members hosting garage sales for their unsold shoes. It took unsold shoes from other church rummage sales. It put drop boxes outside the door of the church. Every year the church has a float in the West Chicago Railroad Days parade and this year it featured a 10-foot-long orange high-top. For the first time in all its years participating in the parade, the church's float won an award.

Area schools noticed and sponsored their own shoe drives, donating whatever shoes they received to the church's collection. York High School in Elmhurst donated shoes, the student council at Community High School in West Chicago donated 350 pairs and Lane Technical College Preparatory High School in Chicago donated 700 pairs.

Since the float paraded through town, donations have jumped. And even though 5,000 shoes is small change compared to Shoeman Water Projects' 440,000, it's significant.

"That shoe drive is going to provide probably two water purification systems in Haiti," Hutchings said. "In January we installed five (in Haiti). The first one was a 540-gallon tank. We pumped polluted water in and purified it. Before we could install another (tank), people had consumed the water four times.

"One purification system brings clean water to about 1,300 people."

Right now, First United Methodist Church's shoes are being stored at a storage company in Elgin for $1 a month, because, let's face it, it's hard to find a closet that big. When the church reaches its goal, the shoes will start their journey to Haiti or Kenya.

And then Horsely says the church might get started on collecting another 5,000 pairs. Lane Tech already has expressed interest in helping again.

First things first, though. The church hasn't reached its goal yet, and the drop boxes are still sitting outside the building at 643 E. Washington St., West Chicago. All you have to do to help is swing by and drop off a few pairs.

Trust us, Carrie won't mind and neither will M.J.

"It's a simple thing to do," Horsely said. "We all have shoes in the back of the closet that we stop wearing for one reason or another."

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