By Greg Woodburn
While earning your daily bread, be sure you share a slice with those less fortunate.
~Quoted in P.S. I Love You, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
I have been a competitive distance runner since elementary school. As a high school freshman, however, I suffered a hip stress fracture and was sidelined for my sophomore year. Although I was devastated by my injuries then, today I consider them true blessings. They made me realize how deeply I love running and all it has given me: the purity of racing, yes, but also the camaraderie and inside jokes with teammates, the feeling of improving every day to reach the goals set at the beginning of the season, the balance provided by a good run in the middle of a busy day.
Running is hard, but NOT running is harder.
My parents and especially my older sister Dallas — herself a track and cross-country runner in high school — have always taught me that the best way to overcome personal adversity is to help others with their challenges because it brings us joy and puts our own problems in perspective. In this light, I empathized with disadvantaged kids who couldn't enjoy running — not because of injury, but because they could not afford running shoes.
I turned adversity into opportunity by creating Give Running, a non-profit organization that teaches youth, through running, the character traits and skills that serve as a foundation for success in all aspects of life. Since 2006, Give Running has collected, cleaned, and donated more than 14,200 pairs of running and athletic shoes to youth in developing countries and local inner-city communities. To further promote a love for running and the benefits it fosters, Give Running also holds youth running camps that include leadership development and community service components emphasizing the broader application of lessons learned through sports.
In December 2009, I traveled to Mali in West Africa as part of the USC Africa Health Initiative and spent three weeks in the small village of Sikoro (population 450) building an irrigated community garden to provide fruits and vegetables that are severely lacking from the villagers' nutrient-poor diets, while also economically empowering women with a new source of income from produce sales. In Malian culture, we learned, men and women are each expected to have their own source of income; women would use their income to purchase food for meals and other necessities. Before we helped build the community garden, the women in Sikoro mainly earned money by cutting down trees to sell as firewood — an unsustainable practice that was contributing to deforestation in the region.
Furthermore, we raised funds prior to our travels and purchased materials for building a desperately needed bridge. During the four-month rainy season, the river bordering Sikoro floods, isolating its residents from the secondary school, larger markets, and medical clinic in the larger town across the river. Less dramatic but equally sincere, I brought along 113 pairs of running shoes — as many as I could squeeze into five extra duffle bags — to distribute to our generous hosts.
For many of the Sikoro villagers, these were the first shoes they ever had! Indeed, so precious were the shoes that if we at first guessed wrong and gave a person footwear that was a half-size — or even more — too small, the villager would scrunch up his or her toes and insist the shoes fit just fine! Painfully too small was better than none at all; they would not let us take the running shoes off their feet until we brought over larger replacement pairs. Recalling it still gives me goose bumps.
As special as it was to honor the Chief with the first pair of running shoes given out, lacing up each pair on recipients' feet was equally meaningful. However, one gift pair of shoes stands out in my mind and heart as distinctly as does the most memorable run of my life.
The day before leaving Sikoro, I went on a six-mile run circling through the village. The first few laps of my quarter-mile loop I ran in solitude, but then several children began to run with me. They would keep me company for one or two circuits, then drop out and take a rest, only to rejoin me the next time I came around. Before I knew it, my running group had swelled from three to ten to twenty-plus smiling kids — many of whom were wearing the gift shoes they had received the previous day.
During this most cherished run, one training partner stood out because he had to stop — not out of exhaustion, but because of a rocky section of the trail and due to the fact that he was running barefoot. Lameen Sacko, I learned, had not received a pair of Give Running shoes the day before. The following day, my last in the village, I met Lameen at his tin-roofed mud hut and asked him to try on my running shoes — the only pair of shoes (besides flip-flops) I had brought for my own use in Mali.
My size 11.5 Adidas Supernova Glides fit Lameen perfectly.
"I ni che, Amadou (Thank you, Greg)," he said, using my adopted Malian name.
"I ni su (You're welcome)," I replied, smiling.
As we shook hands in friendship, adrenaline again surged through my body and my heartbeat raced. I realized how each pair of Give Running shoes serves as a bridge between two lives. While the giver and receiver of each pair of shoes may not meet face to face as did Lameen and I, through the shoes they nevertheless meet foot-to-foot.
Visiting Africa, I found, breaks your heart — and opens it wider than ever before. I am certainly a better and more fulfilled person for the experience. The following holiday season when I sat down to a feast of Christmas foodstuffs, I thought of the wonderful companionship I was treated to in Sikoro. I gave thanks for all I have and for all I learned from those who have so much less. I also thought of Lameen and laced up my new Adidas to go for a run.
When the USC Africa Health Initiative returned to Sikoro in the summer of 2011, our dear friend the Chief was wearing his bright white running shoes — still in excellent condition — when he greeted the visiting contingent. While I could not return this time, before the USCAHI cohort left Los Angles, I gave one of my friends going on the trip another pair of my size 11.5 Adidas Supernova Glides for Lameen.