It was billed as a Shoe Cutting Party, but Jessica Dominguez, 19, of Mendota High School stood silently as she watched little children crying. Adults were digging with safety pins into the little ones’ tiny, wounded feet and washing them with antiseptic.
What kind of party is that? The best kind.
The scene she and her friends were watching on video was from Uganda. The film shown on the screen in her high school library documented a jigger infestation that was crippling and sometimes killing children in an African village. Jiggers are parasites that burrow into the feet of the shoeless children, lay their eggs and wreak havoc on the child’s health. The jiggers keep kids from school, keep them from being normal children and often devastate their lives by spreading HIV and AIDS. Some of the locals think their diseases are the result of witchcraft.
It was painful to see children suffering so over something Jessica and her classmates take for granted – shoes.
In a few moments, the house lights went up, the video was turned off. Jessica and a half dozen of her pals taught about three dozen volunteers how they could change these children’s lives forever.
A nonprofit group called Sole Hope is dedicated to helping the children of Uganda get shoes that will protect them from the parasites, and also help their parents find work by doing the actual sewing of the shoes. Volunteers all over the nation are pitching in to make the parts required for these life-saving shoes. Then the Americans package up the components of the shoes in a box and send them off to Africa to be finished.
Second annual You Matter Day 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Chukchansi Park, downtown Fresno
And that’s the way the teens spent their Tuesday afternoon: making shoes. They did it again Saturday, showing off their skills and teaching others, at the second annual You Matter rally in Fresno from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Chukchansi Park.
In Mendota High’s Lend a Hand Club, an after-school program, this is the kind of challenge they like to tackle. They hope to assemble components for at least 60 pairs of children’s size 4 shoes in one day and prepare them for mailing.
They were supremely organized at their “party.” At one table, Maria Baires, 18, Dayme Barrera, 17, Elena Orozco, 18 and Lilia Torres, 17, were making pattern templates for the shoes out of donated plastic. Next to them were Ayde Mendoza, 17, Blanca Martinez, 18, Travis R. Dutra Jr., 15, Josue Gomez, 18, and Maria Escobar, 17. It was their task to cut open the seams from donated denim jeans to make a flat piece of fabric. At other tables, the pattern was drawn on the jeans and then cut out, becoming the top part of the shoes.
Karla Barrera, 17, moved between the tables, giving instruction to the volunteers with questions. She’s been one of the prime organizers of the project, which started weeks ago in Lend A Hand Club. Jill Rafel provides much of the adult guidance for the group to help them succeed with their ambitious goals to make the world a better place. She watched her young leaders and volunteers with clear pride, executing their plan and making it look fun and easy.
The people of Mendota know what it is to struggle. In 2015, the median household income of Mendota residents was $25,862. However, 46.5 percent of Mendota residents live in poverty. About 98 percent of the population is Hispanic. Still there is no shortage of teens who have been touched by the mission of Sole Hope, helping children with much less, even when they live on a continent far away.
I talk to them – especially the seniors – about leaving your legacy. You will see them working with the younger ones to ensure the good work continues after they have graduated.
Mendota High School teacher Jill Rafel
Learning skills in “servant leadership” from their teacher, the dedicated group in Lend a Hand Club started weeks ago involving their school in the project. Using fliers and social media, they spread the word of the Shoe Cutting Party and what they needed: old jeans, plastic folders, empty milk jugs and empty 2-liter soda bottles.
The donations trickled in at first, then poured in as the deadline approached, thrilling the organizers. They learned to recruit volunteers, communicate, issue multiple reminders, organize and plan the events, teach others how to make the shoes and cut the pattern pieces, and of course, to have a dry run well in advance with the technology to make sure everything is working right for the presentation. (Very good advice, since the laptop they were planning to use had the YouTube channel blocked!)
On Tuesday, the jeans were stacked up in an impressive pile in the library. Two pair of shoes, the young experts reported, could be cut from each pair of jeans. Surveying the room full of eager workers, Karla shared her secret to success: “It must come from the heart. We do it for a higher purpose – and it needs to be fun to do.”
There have been many projects this year by the group. Warm Hearts Warm Hands involved collecting and handing out clothes for the homeless.
“It was one of my favorites,” Karla said, “Because it is for our community. People came together and gave to help each other.” They set it up in the Mendota Youth Center, and it was a big hit.
Jessica Dominguez was proud of a video they produced. Drafting volunteer actors, they placed a child in front of the bus station, cold and shivering. One by one, a well-dressed passerby would notice the child, then remove one piece of clothing and give it to the child. One person gave over a scarf, another gloves, next a jacket. And by the end, the child was enveloped in warm clothing. The team promoted the video, spread it by social media and the result was a successful event.
“The video really got to people,” Jessica says. “We chose a good location. Mendota Youth Center is a place where people feel welcome.” Folks in need who walked through the door found warm clothing of all kinds organized by gender and size. Take what you need. No questions asked.
Jessica has a special heart for charity projects. “Sometimes it’s hard,” she said, seeing little kids who don’t have their basic needs taken care of like food and clothing. Almost every week the club serves food at the Fresno Rescue Mission.
She will always remember one special day. “I was in charge of dessert. I will never forget the look on their faces when they were given ice cream. They were so excited. Whatever they got they were so grateful for.”
Jill Rafel, who teaches physical education and AVID class among her responsibilities, is already recruiting next year’s club members. (AVID is an acronym for Advancement Via Individual Determination, a program that helps students with high academic potential prepare for entrance to colleges and universities.) She’s got a special sense for students with servant-leadership potential.
“I talk to them – especially the seniors – about leaving your legacy. You will see them working with the younger ones to ensure the good work continues after they have graduated.” Even some middle-school students responded to an invitation to the shoe-cutting party. They are candidates for Rafel’s next generation of servant leaders.
Jessica would make a great nonprofit CEO, but her plan is to pursue neurobiology; she loves science and is considering studying medicine. She has been accepted to a UC. Regardless, she wants to do help lift up people so she can see more of those precious “ice cream faces.”
And the big dream for this graduating senior? Perhaps a car? Upscale laptop? A trip to the beach, you might guess.
“My dream is to go to Ghana,” she says, beaming. “I want to go to Africa and see for myself the look in the faces of the children when they get these shoes!”
Gail Marshall is an associate editor for the Opinion pages: 559-441-6680
How to help
Mendota High School AVID teacher Jill Rafel, firstname.lastname@example.org
You Matter Day by the numbers
- 11 Fresno County high schools
- 4 middle schools
- 6 elementary schools
- 1-12 grade levels involved
- 641 students registered
Is your school involved?
High schools: Fowler, Firebaugh, Riverdale, Orange Cove, Washington, Caruthers, Coalinga, Selma, Parlier, Roosevelt, Mendota
Middle schools: Cooper, Alta, A.L. Conner, Grant
Elementary schools: Kings Canyon Unified Elementary Schools, Lane, Washington, Lincoln, Tilley, Teague
Details: Brent Smither, email@example.com