DeKALB – Jim Bennett walked into the MLK Commons on Northern Illinois University’s campus with two shoes Thursday, but left barefoot.
Bennett was one of many students who took their shoes off and threw them into a pile right in the middle of campus to support NIU Engineers Without Borders “A Day Without Shoes” event, which helps sends donated footwear to people in developing countries.
“I like to try to give when I can, and this is pretty minimal,” said Bennett, a sophomore. “I have three more pairs at home.”
Josh Ott, president of NIU Engineers Without Borders, said it was donations from students such as Bennett that would give people living in impoverished countries the protection needed to walk safely on the rough surfaces that cause cuts and terrible disease.
Ott, a junior in mechanical engineering, said he hoped to collect more than 600 shoes, which was last year’s total. By 1 p.m. Thursday, the group was well on its way to meeting that goal.
“It’s always amazing to see students who didn’t even know about this event just stop and take off their shoes because they want to give,” Ott said. “Hopefully this will make life a little easier for people in those developing countries.”
The group’s work with developing countries goes far beyond shoe collection events. Ott went to Africa in January, where the group is helping to develop solar energy systems for a school in Tanzania so students can study at night because there is no electricity.
In Mexico, the group is working on developing water filtration systems for remote villages with the help of the Center for Appropriate Technology and Indigenous Sustainability. Holly Burwell, a group member who went to Mexico in August, said applying the skills she is learning at NIU to change lives for people in other countries has been an amazing experience.
“[The research] is a lot of work and very difficult, so being able to go there and see the people engaged reignited a spark in the project,” she said.
Thursday’s shoe collection event was just another example of the initiative and creativity that has amazed Sycamore City Engineer John Laskowski in his eight months with the group.
Laskowski, who brought three garbage bags filled with shoes collected from city employees and neighbors, said it was rewarding to see students effectively tackle global problems with limited resources.
“It’s a very talented group of students,” he said. “I end up sitting there in awe [at meetings]. I’m just really there to facilitate whatever resources I may have.”
Local businesses also helped with the event Thursday as Kohl’s donated $500 to the group and Famous Footwear gave any student who left their shoes at the site a $10 gift certificate. Ott said anyone still interested in donating shoes should contact Soles 4 Souls – the partner organization of Engineers Without Borders.