Rachel Quade's Columbia house is filling up with shoes. Lots and lots of shoes.
Every day, she gets bags and boxes of them, from friends and strangers alike. She has sneakers, metallic sandals, rain boots, snow boots, heels, leather dress shoes, jellies and cleats. She has tiny, floral baby's sandals and size 12 men's loafers. She even has 10 pairs of black, white and red athletic shoes from the University of Maryland women's basketball team.
And that's just a sample. Since July 1, Quade has collected some 2,000 shoes for Soles4Souls, a Tennessee-based nonprofit that donates footwear to people in need across the United States and the world.
The organization provides shoes to victims of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia. It also has a micro-enterprise program, which provides shoes that program participants can sell and keep the profit.
Quade's campaign started with a trip to the Savage branch library, where she takes her three children — Stephen, 11, Grace, 9, and Sarah, 7 — about once a week to check out books. That October day, the line was longer than usual. "I knew that they were going to be impatient having to wait," she said.
So Quade picked up the nearest book: "New Old Shoes," by Charlotte Blessing. It was the story of a pair of red sneakers that are passed on from an American boy to an African boy. At the end was information about the Soles4Souls program.
Quade was touched by the story and couldn't get its message off her mind. "I went home and I sat for a month, thinking about what I could do to make a difference," she said. One day, while she was looking at the Soles4Souls website, she came across a link advertising service trips with the group.
Seven months later, she was halfway around the world in Tanzania.
'They have nothing'
She spent five days in the east African country with about 19 other volunteers. Every day, they traveled to two or three different orphanages to play with the children there and measure their feet for a "new" pair of shoes.
Quade said one of the first things that struck her on the trip was the huge disparity in material wealth between the U.S. and Tanzania.
"They have nothing," she said. "They have nothing but the clothes on their backs and that's it."
At the orphanages she visited, bathrooms had three holes in the floor, but no stalls. A "nice" kitchen was a barren room with nothing but two stoves, a fan and tile flooring.
"For me, the hardest part about coming back has been … seeing how much Americans waste," Quade said. "We don't think anything of it to throw stuff away."
Quade said the children she met would be happy wearing the shoes that many Americans consider trash. "The kind of shoes that you go to cut your lawn in are what they want," she said. "As long as they have soles, they're good."
Quade hopes to collect 50,000 pairs of shoes by November, and ezStorage, on Route 1, has already donated a space to store the shoes. Soles4Souls has offered to provide a U-Haul truck free of charge to transport the shoes to their warehouse in Tennessee if she is able to collect 25,000.
Elizabeth Kirk, director of communications for Soles4Souls, said Quade's goal is unusually ambitious, as the most collected yet by one person has been 40,000 pairs.
She said her organization has distributed shoes in 127 different countries — half of them in the U.S. "Most people when they think of poverty, don't think of the U.S. But there are some areas with abject poverty," she said.
Return to Tanzania?
Quade is working on placing collection boxes at each of the Columbia village centers and getting the word out by networking with family, friends and neighbors.
Her goal is ambitious, but her work has struck a chord with a lot of people.
Carol Wasser, who as teen outreach program manager for the Columbia Association organizes both fun and charitable activities for middle and high school youngsters, came away from a conversation with Quade eager to help.
"It's perfect for these kids," she said, adding that she hopes to help get area schools and CA clubs involved in the collection effort. "I think it's a really wonderful think that she's doing, and I'm really willing to help her."
Quade hopes to return to Tanzania for another service trip someday. "A part of my heart feels like it's there," she said.
Her husband, Bill Quade, took care of their kids last time she was away and said he would support her taking another trip.
"A lot of people will say we need to do something, we need to make a difference, and she's actually stepping up and putting her time and energy where her mouth is. It makes me feel good that she's willing to do that and able to do that," he said.
Quade said she wanted to know that she was doing all she could to help alleviate the poverty she saw in Tanzania.
"I don't have all the answers," she said. "It's wonderful, phenomenal to think we have something to give and all you need is someone to coordinate it. Why not be the person doing it?"