What began as a casual conversation between a Spokane man and his son has filled a warehouse with 35,000 pairs of shoes for refugees in Rwanda.
Shoes donated from Great Falls to Tacoma have surged into Spokane by semi-truck, station wagon and tour bus - arriving every way but walking in themselves.
“It’s been phenomenal, beyond our greatest expectations,” said Rocky Rothrock, 63.
Spokane’s Rothrock family is working with the Washington Air National Guard and Air Force to ship 2,500 boxes of shoes and clothing to Norfolk, Va., beginning April 13. It could take three planeloads. A Defense Department humanitarian program would then deliver the items to Kigali, the Rwandan capital where Brad Rothrock works for Catholic Relief Services.
Nearly 1 million refugees who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide have streamed home since November, carrying what they owned in their arms or atop their heads.
Brad Rothrock, 38, a senior relief worker who spent more than two years preparing for their return, described their impoverishment to his father in December. The senior Rothrock, a Spokane Realtor, promised to round up some shoes.
Just how many surprised everyone.
Newspapers in three states spread the story. In Tacoma, volunteers started “Can You Spare a Pair,” sending two semi-truckloads to Spokane.
Angie Read, a 72-year-old widow from Ronan, Mont., contacted two local schools and within a week, had 1,250 pairs, including shoes belonging to her late husband.
She and senior citizens from the tiny town of Dixon, Mont., hauled them over in a bus they chartered for an ice show in Spokane in January. The shoes kept coming, so they sent another station wagon.
“People went berserk with these shoes,” Read said. “It was something they could do to help a foreign country and it was a way to use good shoes. When you see shoes at yard sales people don’t even pay attention to them. It’s a waste.”
In Great Falls, Seventh-day Adventists led the drive under the name “Operation Soles for Christ - No Heels.”
“We set our goal at 1,000 pairs of shoes and they just kept tumbling in,” said organizer Sharon Ann Ashton. The resulting 2,500 pairs covered a flatbed.
Processor’s Unlimited, a food distribution company in Spokane, donated 2,500 banana boxes. Paddy Shannon, a close friend of the Rothrocks, enlisted her mother, in-laws and friends to sort and box alongside Gonzaga Prep students at the Rothrock’s warehouse on East Trent. “These are used shoes and clothes but they’re in great shape,” Shannon said. “People have been very, very generous.”
The 141st Air Refueling Wing of the Guard and 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base are working now to transport the boxes on scheduled flights that would otherwise be empty. Donations are no longer being accepted. The Guard has tentatively planned a tanker flight April 13. Further shipment would occur through the Denton Amendment program, which uses scheduled military flights to transport private, humanitarian aid.
Last February, the Rothrocks used a Denton flight to send 2,400 basketballs to Rwanda with the help of Hoopfest and Bloomsday organizers, as well as local soccer players.
The project helped establish several national basketball teams in Rwanda - men’s and women’s - building the reconciliation critical to the country’s future.
Brad Rothrock, who studied international peace and justice, said the effort gave the Rwandans a chance to see something besides death and misery, to cooperate and communicate with one another.
“We’re trying to sew together the tissue of the society,” Rothrock said in a telephone interview from his home. “People don’t trust anyone after genocide.”
In May, Rothrock will transfer to Sierra Leone, in West Africa. But he said, Catholic Relief’s extensive distribution network in Rwanda will ably deliver the shoes to the poorest of the poor, including the elderly and the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 widows left behind by the mass murders. Many of the women are raising six to 10 children apiece - their own children and the orphans they’ve adopted.
Last month, the senior Rothrocks traveled to Rwanda to visit Brad and his wife, a Swiss nurse, and infant son. They saw a beautiful country of rolling hills and lush fruit trees. But they also visited genocide sites where bodies lay exactly where they fell during the 1994 slaughter of 500,000 Tutsis. More than 1 million Hutus later fled the country when the Tutsis took over control of the government.
Rooms of skulls, many of them children’s smashed by machetes, continue to haunt the Spokane couple.
“We just don’t understand the violence or the evil that prevailed,” said Lolly Rothrock.
“We’ll never be the same,” said her husband.
Amid the memories, there is hope. This week, desperately needed rain for crops of beans, corn and sorghum began falling in Rwanda. The nation’s courts are beginning to prosecute war criminals. Catholic Relief Services continues to help build local government and the economy, Brad Rothrock said.
He found it comforting that so many people supported the shoe project, in part because it helps them see beyond Montana or Washington borders.
What happened in Rwanda is not just about Rwanda.
“This could happen anywhere we know that racism exists,” he said. In the global village, “There’s something deeper at stake for all of us.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NO MORE DONATIONS The 141st Air Refueling Wing of the Guard and 92nd Air Refueling Wing at Fairchild Air Force Base are working now to transport the boxes. Donations are no longer being accepted.