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BG Falcon Media

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BG Falcon Media

The BG News
BG24 Newscast
November 30, 2023

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Soles for Souls’ benefits children

Imagine walking all day long on a surface that’s hot enough to cook eggs on. Imagine being barefoot while doing it. This is what the feet of many Iraqi children go through on a daily basis.

Erin Vader didn’t know about this until she came in contact with Sergeant Gilbert Zepeda, who is currently stationed in Iraq. Today the University junior spends a great amount of her time collecting shoes for these children to support Sgt. Zepeda’s project, “Soles for Souls.”

“This summer I was bored. One day when I surfed the Internet, I found the Web page of ‘Soldiers’ Angels’ and adopted a soldier,” Vader said. “I always wanted to do something for our troops.”

Members of “Soldiers’ Angels,” a national non-profit organization, support enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines by becoming their pen-pals.

“Gilbert is my adopted soldier, and I write him letters, e-mails and send him packages to spoil him a little,” Vader said. “The first and only thing he asked me for was shoes for children in Iraq, so I decided I better go find some.”

That was at the end of July. Now two months later, Vader has over 300 pairs of new and slightly used sandals and tennis shoes in the trunk of her car and runs donations in eight states.

“When several other ‘Angels’ started to send him shoes, too, Gilbert named the project ‘Soles for Souls,'” Vader said.

The political science major e-mailed about 500 churches over the summer to ask for support, but had no success until she contacted the media.

“After talking to newspapers I started getting tons and tons of shoes. So I had to organize a drop-off point for Ohio in Sylvania,” she said.

People who donate in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Maryland, Illinois and Minnesota, where Vader also organizes the project send the shoes themselves.

Vader is happy to see such a positive response for a problem that often goes unseen.

“We’re better off than the children in Iraq, and it’s so easy to dig out a pair of shoes,” Vader said. “These children are the future leaders of Iraq and if you want them to learn compassion you have to show them compassion.”

In an e-mail, Zepeda reported from Iraq what children there face each day.

“During the month of August, the temperature reaches 140 degrees,” Zepeda wrote. “Children, especially between the ages of 1 to 5-years-old, are observed walking barefoot on dirt and asphalt roads.”

Corporal Christopher Markus, who was stationed with the Marine Corps in Iraq for seven months in 2004, remembers that not only children, but the majority of the Iraqi people, walks around barefoot.

Zepeda had originally planned to hand out the shoes to children once a month, but Vader’s efforts have been surprising so far.

According to the 2004 analytical report of the United Nations Development Program, 10.6 million of the 27.1 million people in Iraq (39 percent) are under age 15 – a number that is very close to Ohio’s population (of roughly 11,400,000).

“My goal is to ‘shoe’ every child I come across,” Sgt. Zepeda said.

Although the project has been a big success thus far, and people from 22 states have sent shoes, Vader still has obstacles to face.

“Shipping costs an arm and a leg. I asked people who donated for $1 per pair which is what shipping approximately costs. But they didn’t stick the dollar in the shoes,” Vader said. “Now I have 300 pairs in my trunk and no money to ship them. I don’t know what to do, other than driving my car around with no trunk space. Many people probably think the organization [Soldiers’ Angels] takes care of that since it’s a national organization, but we’re all volunteers, so there’s no money.”

Another problem that not only Vader but other “Angels” have to challenge are anti-war protesters who, according to Vader, regularly destroy the organization’s Web page.

“[Soles for Souls] is not about the war, this is about the soldiers and the children,” Vader said. “Soldiers’ Angels is non-political.”

Editor’s Note: To support the project contact Erin Vader at [email protected]

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