Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Reflecting On My Recent Ethiopia Trip


As I wait to board my flight back home after 16 days in Africa, I am consumed with emotions, children's faces, funny memories and visions of the future. I am alone right now, but feel deeply connected to each of the volunteers, camera men and women and friends who I spent my time with the past few weeks, and I feel especially connected to each of the TOMS family members I will be returning to. I believe each of us has a mission in life, and that one cannot truly be living their most fulfilled life until they recognize this mission and dedicate their life to pursuing it. Sometimes one lasts for two weeks or two months, or possibly 20 years. I have given my life to several over the past 33 years, but none of them have resonated so deeply with my soul as the one I am currently pursuing. This mission is not singular in its track, but consists of several evolving pursuits interconnected by the TOMS movement. I would like to share each of those with you in hopes that you will continue to support me and hold me accountable in fulfilling them.

The first mission, and the one most relevant to my time in Southern Ethiopia, is my desire to eliminate unnecessary human suffering through the distribution of new shoes. In one of the very rural areas on my trip, I had an epiphany that might seem like common knowledge to many. But to me, it was a way of looking at the need for shoes in a totally different perspective. In the areas of the greatest poverty, which often are also extremely remote, a willing person can build shelter, grow food and they can even seek elders and teachers to learn from, but it is highly unlikely that they can make a pair of shoes. Shoes require factories, machines and materials not typically found in nature. So in these areas, if there are diseases to be contracted in the absence of shoes, these people have little hope of escaping them. This is why we must continue to give aid in these areas, and while I am a big believer in teaching someone to fish instead of giving them fish, in this case, we must give them fish in order for them to learn other things that will allow them to improve their lives. Our work to prevent Podoconiosis, and our efforts to help raise the necessary funds to treat it, fall into this category and mission. I listened to some of the most intense stories of the human spirit in Sodo last week. I heard about women who tried to digest poison in order to avoid a continued life of shame and alienation, but who got a second chance from the Mossy Foot clinics with treatment, vocational job training and a pair of shoes. These women now have regular-sized feet, are back with the families that love them, and are dedicating their lives to informing patients in their communities that Podo can be prevented with shoes durable shoes and simple hygiene, and if contracted, can be reversed with treatment. There are hundreds, if not thousands of stories just like this one, and even if there was only one of these stories and one child that would soon face a similar fate, our work at TOMS and with the Mossy Foot Project would be worth it.

To illustrate this point further, I was on the receiving side of this experience when traveling with an organization called A Glimmer of Hope.

They invited me and my parents to visit their projects and communities in northern Ethiopia, and during our trip, offered a very unique opportunity for my parents to give spontaneously from the heart. That day we were at a school that did not seem to have much to be proud of, but a student body of 1600 kids, including a teacher who exhibited nothing but pride, passion, and talent. During the program we learned that this school was in desperate need for clean drinking water. We found out that 2 wells could satisfy their need. Before we left that day, my parents committed to building one of the wells, and another woman in our group, the second well. Tears of joy ran down our faces as we learned that those wells would be constructed within the next 4 months and clean water would be available for each of those 1600 students desperate to learn in a proper environment. While it might have been my parents’ (and the other woman on the trip) personal desire to give that will fund these wells, it is really A Glimmer of Hope who should be most proud. Their organization, led by the vision of Philip and Donna Berber, allows donors the opportunity to support projects in Ethiopia with 100% of their donation going to work, while the Berber's endowment covers all operating expenses. Furthermore, it was the inclusion of us and other volunteers on the trip that allowed such an intimate giving experience to take place, and for that, my parents and I will be forever thankful. So the bottom line is this, these trips change lives, and the more of them we can organize, the greater our impact on the world will be.

Yesterday, I sat on the edge of a skateboard ramp, surrounded by Zulu huts and farmland in a remote village outside of Durban, South Africa. What I saw was simply beautiful. I saw community. I saw self-esteem. I saw children who were not just learning how to skate, but learning mathematics, geography and the idea that with self discipline and courage, anything can be learned or achieved. The Indigo Skate Camp, founded by a gentle spirit named Dallas, was the first stop on the TOMS and Element Shoe + Board Drop. Besides many talented and happy children, each wearing a new pair of shoes and riding a new skateboard, what I saw was the joy of giving. This collaboration between TOMS and Element was almost two years in the making, and while it took considerable efforts and coordination, I believe it was worth every ounce of energy. We received love, acceptance and demonstrations of pure delight. So my second mission is clear. We must find a way to share this experience with as many people as humanly possible. Organizing Shoe Drops is no doubt a very complicated and time consuming task, and I have the utmost respect for everyone at TOMS (including my mom who did the first one) who has taken part in putting a Shoe Drop on, but the transformative experience that happens inside the volunteers and recipients is well worth the effort. As TOMS grows, it is my mission to offer more of these experiences to employees, customers, vendors, volunteers and friends through our non-profit, Friends of TOMS.

Yesterday's collaborative nature further reinforced the power of partnership and my third mission, which is the need for TOMS to remain an inclusive brand at all times. Element added something to the experience that TOMS could never have done on its own, the same way that Brandon Boyd and Kristin Jai Klosterman did with their amazing art last month in Los Angeles. Collaborations, partnerships, whatever you want to call them, must continue to drive the evolution of TOMS. I believe that everyone has a deep desire to give and to make the world a better place and to be responsible for 50, 500, or 50,000 kids receiving a pair of new shoes. TOMS has the opportunity to offer individuals, companies and other brands this experience through thoughtful and creative partnerships. By doing so, we will not only extend the joy of giving to many more organizations and people, but TOMS will be strengthened in the diversity of its community.

Lastly, in speaking with a few of the volunteers and contest winners last night and hearing from a proud parent whose children have been inspired by the One for One movement, there is no doubt that people are seeing that business and matters of the heart do not have to be mutually exclusive. That one does not need to choose between passion and business, or the Peace Corps and corporate America, but a blend can exist, and when the model is sound, great things can happen. So I will dedicate the time to record what we are learning, to facilitate introductions and to speak to those who are interested, in hopes that TOMS' impact is not limited to the shoes we put on childrens' feet, but that TOMS inspires a new generation of leaders who will go on to solve the many injustices that exist today and will surface tomorrow.

As I said in the beginning of this lengthy note, one must know their mission, and I am extremely grateful for my time in Ethiopia and South Africa, because my mission became increasingly clear to me with each day there. Thank you for allowing me to share this with you and for your continued support as we fulfill each of these good intentions.

Carpe Diem,



Luke said...

Thanks Steve!

Hey Ana Maria & Erica

I have been watching the amazing progress of Toms Shoes for the last two years and have been inspired to work out the kinks of my own "gifted" shoe program for our inner city schools in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (

All that said there is a program beyond my means and ability in which a very good friend of mine takes a lead role in Haiti.

Here is his information:

James A. Adderson
Health Services Manager
Rehabilitation Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre
1341 Summer Street
Halifax, Nova Scotia
B3H 4K4

Phone: (902) 473-1383
Fax: (902) 473-1235

I would be pleased to put you in direct contact if this opportunity meets your criteria of need and priority.

His group is called Team Canada Healing Hands. They will be heading to Haiti on their annual trip in November.

I am not thinking this is possible for this year but would hope it could be put on the radar for 2010.


Luke MacDonald
President, Canadian Alliance of Specialty Running Stores
Owner, Aerobics First Services Ltd.
1 902 435 3391 X 4

Annette said...

Wow, Blake, thanks for sharing your heart. So many important concepts beautifully expressed. I take people to work in and experience Ft. Liberte, Haiti. You are so right, the bottom line really is "these trips change lives." I hope we can coordinate a shoe drop with you in Haiti. I take a group of college students in late May.

Lucila said...

Each of your words needled my heart with intensity. You've no idea how lucky you are for finding your mission in this world and going for it. To fulfill it, you need a mind clear of worldly poisons and a heart close to God. You have both, and which is as important as them, you have courage. Which is the last element that you need to achieve success in what you do? The inexplicable gift of being clear and enthusiastic enough to spread the word and make others feel the same your heart is now feeling. The news is that you also have that. 'Thanks' is not enough to thank you for your work and for sharing all these experiences, but when it comes deeply from the heart, as not many things do, I like to say it, making each word sound independent: T-H-A-N-K-S! I will be honored to give you my hands, my mind and my heart to accomplish any of those missions. I want my mind clear of worldly poisons and my heart closer to God! Much respect, and even much love from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Let me know what to do:

Susan Standfield said...

I would like to contact Blake about a possible SA partnership. Could someone assist me?

Anonymous said...


WOW - a social entruprentuer - thank you! - I never knew how to acknowledge my own desire and drive to "give back" and in the attempt to find a sustaining income.

It is great to give - greater to recieve. May I give to you from what I have to give? I am a watercolorist and desire to create a heart-felt, thank you painting for you - sized to be displayed on your boat.