When Rock Hill native Taylor Lavender was a sophomore at High Point University, she signed up to go on a service trip with Vida Volunteer, an organization that sends people on medical, dental and veterinary trips to Central America.
The biology major thought it would be a good experience, mixing practicing medical skills with doing something good for the world.
But one little boy turned her trip into much more.
Gary came into one of Vida’s clinics in Nicaragua with a large gash on his toe. When asked where his shoes were, he told Lavender that he didn’t have any.
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Like countless other children in Nicaragua who live in extreme poverty, Gary’s family could barely feed themselves, let alone afford shoes that could protect their feet.
“I gave him clothes out my suitcase because his family needed them more than I did,” Lavender said.
When she got back to the United States, Lavender started sponsoring Gary, now 11, sending money so his family could buy shoes, clothes and notebooks and so Gary could go to school.
But she wanted to do more.
So when life presented her with the opportunity to go on another trip, this time as a coordinator, she got the idea to bring shoes along to help other children like Gary.
“I was thinking I’d bring 20 pairs,” Lavender said. “I didn’t think it would blow up like this.”
Lavender found allies in this new project in all areas of her life. Her parents jumped in with both feet. High Point University’s Office of Student Life gave her $500 to buy shoes. Castle Heights Middle School in Rock Hill, where Lavender attended, sponsored a dress-down day and a dance to raise more than $1,300 to buy shoes.
Her goal of 20 pairs of shoes turned into more than 200 – all simple canvas sneakers bought at Walmart, decorated with care with Sharpie markers so each pair was unique.
Then in May, with help from American Airlines, which waived baggage fees so Lavender and her fellow volunteers could transport all those shoes, they set off for Nicaragua, traveling from clinic to clinic, helping and giving out shoes.
One little boy ran in circles with joy when he got his sneakers.
“This is the first thing that’s ever been mine,” Lavender recalled him saying.
The experience of handing out the shoes was “amazing,” she said, and within a few short days at the clinics, the shoes were gone and Lavender was left wishing they had brought even more.
Lavender definitely plans to go on another trip, armed with even more shoes. She couldn’t believe how many people helped with this last round, and she’s looking forward to seeing who wants to help this time.
“I never expected anyone to help, besides my parents,” she said. “I had no idea why so many people wanted to help all these kids they’d never met.”