Inspire Cuba: Shoes that Grow

On July 19th, 2018, Inspire Cuba flew to Havana with 34 pairs of “shoes that grow” to donate to children in three different communities in and near Havana.  Founded by young Cubans and Cuban Americans, Inspire Cuba aims to better the lives of the Cuban people while inspiring a new dynamic between our two peoples and our two countries, one based on honest dialogue and meaningful collaboration.  One way we do this is by providing humanitarian aid to the Cuban people, in this case shoes that grow. A “shoe that grows” is essentially a very durable chaco-style shoe made out of tire rubber. The shoes get their name from straps that adjust in five different places, allowing them to “grow” with a child for up to five years. Our journey to get these shoes to needy children in Cuba began six months prior when Dana Fernandez, a second generation Cuban American from New Jersey, and the newest member of Inspire Cuba, first proposed the project at the monthly board meeting. Dana learned about The Shoe That Grows and their mission through social media. She witnessed the impact the shoes had on children in other countries throughout Africa and Latin America and she thought, “why not Cuba?”

The board got behind the proposal almost immediately. We were attracted to the low-cost and easily implementable nature of the project. The shoes cost only $16 per pair and could be brought to Cuba in luggage, which makes the entire process easier, given that we could forego having to obtain import/export visas, which are costly and difficult to procure for Cuba. Initially, we set out to raise enough money to send 50 pairs of shoes to one community in Havana. We carried out all of our fundraising efforts through social media, and after we hit our goal fairly quickly, we decided to up the ante to 100 pairs of shoes and 3 Cuban communities. This would be a significant project for our young organization, and we were hungry and excited for the challenge. By May, we hit our new fundraising goal of $1600 thanks entirely to public donations from amazing individuals who are passionate about helping to improve the lives of the Cuban people, in this case the children. The 100 pairs arrived a few weeks later, and Dana and I split them up between the two of us.

Chris Vázquez, Dana Fernandez and Sophia Heinke of Inspire Cuba with two of the recipients of Shoes that Grow

To distribute the shoes in Cuba, we partnered with La Iglesia Evangelica de Cuba (the Evangelical Church of Cuba). Although our work is not religious in nature, we have found that implementing projects in Cuba is much easier by means of religious organizations, which are still very autonomous on the island and are capable of things that many other independent organizations aren’t yet. In the past, Inspire Cuba has collaborated with La Iglesia Evangelica to send provisions to Baracoa after Hurricane Matthew caused extensive damage to the area and its residents. We were now working together again, this time to help the children of Havana. The plan was to divide the 100 pairs of shoes into three sets to be donated to children in three locations: Guanabacoa, Alamar, and Centro Habana. We would go door to door in Guanabacoa and Alamar, and we would convene with the children at a central location in Centro Habana, where the need was greatest. Dana was the first of the Inspire Cuba delegation to arrive at Jose Marti International Airport. She arrived with 50 pairs of shoes, and everything was going according to plan until she was only able to locate one bag of 25 pairs. After searching for a while, she finally found the second bag in the hands of a Cuban customs agent, who brought her in for questioning.  Afraid to implicate the Church or Inspire Cuba, Dana told the agents of la aduana that the shoes were donations for the children of Havana. The customs officials, either because they assumed the shoes were for resale, or just to make a point, did not permit Dana to take the second bag with her from the airport, though they did allow her to send them back to the states because we had documentation that verified the non-profit status of Inspire Cuba and Because International.

Afraid that the same misunderstanding would occur when I flew to Havana, I decided to take just 9 pairs, just under the legal limit of items of the same kind that can be entered through customs without needing further permissions or licenses (this was something we learned on the go). Thankfully, I had no issues at the airport and we were set to go with 34 pairs. The next day, Dana and I met Sophia, another Inspire Cuba member who had already been living in Cuba for the summer, in front of the Museo de la Revolución, where we hopped in a taxi to Guanabacoa with ten pairs of shoes. We were greeted in Guanabacoa by Yeny Perez, our friend from the Church, and so commenced the donations. We met incredible families and children that day, as we went door to door donating shoes. At one house, they played music while we put the shoes on the children. For many, it was the first new pair of shoes they ever received and, for some, it was the only pair of shoes without holes that they owned. I feel that I personally witnessed a miracle at one house we visited where a mentally disabled little girl was screaming uncontrollably. Yeny noticed that the child’s screams had sort of a rhythmic tone to them, and she knelt down and began to sing to the girl. Almost instantly, the child stopped screaming and began to hum lowly to Yeny’s voice. She became soothed and allowed us to put the shoes on her as Yeny comforted her. It was truly a beautiful and moving experience for us. My favorite family that received shoes were these adorable fraternal twins. They were so happy running around with their new pair of shoes until it came time for a picture and they became instantly very serious. Their gaze had such a unique depth to it; it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the eyes of a child that young. Their father was so happy and moved by our act of kindness that he expressed a desire to completely reform his life and to come to God. He confessed that he had made poor choices throughout his life and he desperately wanted to make a change for the good of his children. Although our work is not religious in nature, I admired his desire to better himself for his family.

The next day, we again went door to door in Alamar, and it was equally as rewarding to see the children’s faces light up when they received their “shoes that grow.”  After the Alamar donations, we took a colectivo over to Centro Habana where Yeny’s friend, pastor Lester Ly, was waiting for us at a house he had borrowed from a friend, where the donations would be made. Aside from being a pastor, Lester works with needy children from dysfunctional families where the problems range from violence in the home to drug and alcohol abuse. His programs are both developmental and educational in nature, and he helps the children build character and community in a religious setting. Lester was a very gracious and welcoming host to our group, and he explained to us how he wished he could have a central location to conduct his programs in more of a classroom setting. This would help build community among the children, which is an integral element of the programs. Oftentimes, the children don’t really have a place where they feel at home, or can really call home.  We were very moved by this, and Inspire Cuba hopes to help Lester achieve his goal of a central location in the future. At the location he borrowed for the day, Lester had managed to gather approximately 20 children who were all eager to welcome us and receive a pair of shoes. This experience was overwhelmingly the highlight of the trip. We kicked off the donations by playing games with the children. Their favorite was Simon Says, or “Simón Dice,” and I even got to be Simón. Each one of the kids introduced themselves to us, saying their names, their age, and where they were from. Spoiler alert, they were all from Havana! We talked to the children about our organization and our mission, and we sang and danced to music as we put the shoes on their feet. Everyone got shoes; even a little boy who was walking by with a carton of eggs and heard the music got a pair! They were so happy and excited, and the experience was beyond fulfilling for us.  We ended the day with the children forming a circle around us to thank us and say a prayer for us to wish us continued health and success. Many hugs were exchanged, and we said our goodbyes.

In addition to helping Lester purchase a central location from where he can host his enrichment programs, Inspire Cuba plans to deliver the remaining 66 pairs of shoes to Cuba before the end of the year.