Catamarans and Socks
Sometimes, the more that a story is told, the more it can seem to get bigger than life. I guess this is how urban legends take on crazy proportions. But I was there the day it happened. I remember it. And although it has become one of the favorite Hero Holiday stories that are retold and wondered about, I am a witness to the truth.2005 was a year of many beginnings for LiveDifferent (formerly Absolute). We moved from another city to settle our head office from the suburbs to buy a building that was formerly a strip club (!), we hired on new staff that helped to set the direction for the course ahead, and we also decided to take the plunge and start a program called Hero Holiday. Within a short amount of time, Hero Holiday turned our world upside down, opened our eyes, and changed the life course of hundreds, even thousands, of people affected by it. In July of 2005 we started our first official trips with this program, and that summer is forever etched in many of our memories as the summer where life started over.We had just completed our second trip that July. It was the last day before we were going to leave Dominican Republic. It had been impacting, emotional, energizing, frustrating, and had ignited vision in us like nothing before had ever touched. There were about 75 of us there that day. We had a full day lined up for them all, so we gave very specific instructions for what they needed to bring and how to be prepared. We had given the participants some time off to go for a few hours on a catamaran cruise. When they were loading the bus, we reminded them each that they were going to be going to the garbage dump that afternoon, and it was very important that they wear proper footwear. We warned them that without it, they wouldn’t be allowed to join us, as the garbage dump was no place to wear flip flops. I picked up the groceries for 100+ Haitian families we would be bringing them to that afternoon at the garbage dump, and went there ahead of our team to talk with them and see how we could be of more help in the future.They were burning the garbage that day, and it felt like the set for an apocalyptic movie: the stench of burning refuse, the sight of people digging through garbage and desperately pulling out anything that could possibly provide food, shelter, or clothing, and the constant sound of large trucks coming through and dumping more excess from the resorts around the area. I have been around it now for five years, and still I hurt whenever I am around it. I can conjure up the smell simply by thinking of the memories there, and each time it seems just as real as that first time I encountered it.Finally, our bus pulled up with all of our Hero Holiday participants. They were told to come out and help the people as they worked, and some of them started to help me with the groceries, as we prepared to hand them out to the families. We were there for about two hours, and during that brief moment in time we had laughed, cried, played with children, worked alongside those we were humbled to help, and focused on dignity and making the most of the moment. We were beginning to round up everyone, as we had to get the bus back to our other scheduled events before we left for Canada later that night. I was about to turn around and make the last announcement for the bus, and then I saw her.She was one of our participants, she was about 16 years old, she had streams of tears running down her face, and on her feet she only had her socks. I was shocked, and quite honestly, I was more than slightly irritated. How hard is it for people to follow simple insructions? Do they not understand how dangerous it is to walk around like this? I began to march over to her, and then I realized the scope of what was really happening. Behind her, on the other side of the bus, walking slowly as they loaded back on, were over 40 people walking in their socks. With my eyes I saw it, and slowly with my mind I began to comprehend it: this was compassion in action. This was what I had hoped they would be able to grasp as a result of this experience, and when they did, I almost missed it. They had given their shoes away. But not only had they given them away, some of them got down on their knees and fitted them on the tired, dirty, abused feet of their new owners. That day, our students taught us what we had missed.Each of our staff members began to follow their example and all of us left that garbage dump in our sock feet. As we drove away that day, there was one picture I wish I could show the world: as we looked over our shoulder, a large Haitian man with wild hair smiled a toothy grin, waving from the top of a huge pile of garbage. And on his feet? Hot pink Nikes from one of our girls!Since that time, we have learned a few lessons about compassion in action, and because of that story, hundreds and hundreds of people have been inspired to experience it for themselves. However, we now allow our participants the opportunity to leave their shoes behind – at the Hero Holiday base at the end of the week! This summer, Hero Holiday will return to Dominican Republic in July, and we will be working with some of the people that were there that day. Today, they have become our friends, and together we work with them to build a future for us all.If you would like to make a difference in the life of someone less fortunate than you but will not be participating in a Hero Holiday this year, contact us to find out how you can contribute to ongoing projects. You can contact us at email@example.com.