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Shoes to Learn in, to Play in, and to Grow in.

This week found H.U.G.S. participating in our fourth annual back-to-school-drive with our beloved partners Hills and Hollers! The city we're in? Pine Knots, Kentucky. The county that houses that city? The eighth poorest county in all of America. I'm so excited to clue you in on one of my favorite parts of the year- loving on and bonding with the children who we are blessed to shoe!

Preparation for the shoe drive goes like this: I am in our shoe storage for four to seven hours every day leading up to the drive, getting together every pair of tennis shoes we can find, and then labeling them with a size, doing minuscule repairs when it's needed, and then making a bag for every shoe size we have. Every shoe that goes through my (along with whoever else is volunteering) hands is treated with special care, because we know that in a few days, every pair of shoes is going to walk with a precious child through the school year. By the time we have every shoe packed, our storage is completely void of tennis shoes, and our anticipation has built to the point of boiling over! We pack up every shoe we have in the truck, and make our trip from Nashville to Kentucky,

As we edge closer to McCreary county, flat land turns into beautiful tree colored mountains, and there grows a farther and farther distance between each town we pass, acres of green in between.

Jim and Rita Cmolik

When we finally arrive to at Hills and Hollers, we are greeted by our good friends and real life angels, Jim and Rita Cmolik! Jim and Rita have been working with the Pine Knots community for years, expending everything they have through their ministry. After being in the Cmolik's presence for just a little while, you feel overcome with warmth and inspiration. In a world where it's so easy for everyone to get caught up with 'self', it's refreshing to be around two people who authentically and wholly, with a heart free of judgement, love and care about everyone who passes their doors.

After hugs have been exchanged, we immediately get to work! Everyone at Hills and Hollers and everyone who has traveled with H.U.G.S. (sometimes just my mother and I, and sometimes a bigger team) work like a well oiled machine to get every box of shoes in the H.U.G.S. truck out and into Hills and Hollers, where they are then sorted in tubs, organized by size and gender!

After this, the real fun begins! Mr. Jim says a beautiful prayer before the action starts, and then we all get in position. Some of us stay with the tubs of shoes, ready to grab a pair whenever a size gets called out, and others sit down in front of a line of chairs, where in a few minutes eager children will be seated. As usual, I am seated in front of a chair, ecstatic for my life to be changed once again by every soul that passes by. The line to get in Hills and Hollers has been building since early morning, and it snakes across the street and into the next door's Dollar General parking lot. Once everyone's ready, the first family comes through! Before the patron reaches me, they are supplied with some gifts from Hills and Hollers: new jeans, new underwear, and new socks- all they have left is to get fit for their shoes!

Each and every child that sit in my chair is receptive, excited, and kind- they glow with a spirit of openness and trust that only children truly can. Despite being surrounded in often unfortunate circumstances, they are filled with a childlike gentleness, and are not yet touched by the unpleasantness of the poverty around them. We work for hours, but when everything is done- it feels as if we had been there for just minutes. Throughout the shoeing, we do our best to make every child feel loved and seen, we talk with them, but most importantly- we listen. The brightest sights I've ever seen in my whole life are the children's faces once we have found their new pair of shoes! In their eyes is a kind of pride that wasn't there before, because now they have a pair of shoes with no holes and that aren't falling apart. We are blessed to give these children the dignity they deserve to go back to school in style! So many of our shoeing stories go like this one I had from a few years ago; a shy little girl came by with big brown eyes and a disposition of anticipation. I took off her falling apart shoes, once pink- but now almost brown with wear. After I got her into some clean socks, and found her foot size, we found a pair of princess shoes, and once they were on her little feet, she stared in awe at her new pretty pink shoes, eyes shining with excitement. I smiled at her, and let her know that she looked just like a princess! I'll never forget the look she gave me, bubbling with happiness. I could tell that for the first time in a long time, she truly felt like the royalty she is.

This time when the shoeing was over and we were headed home, I left with the same warmth I have always experienced after time giving shoes! I always leave Pine Knots having learned something from Mr.Jim and Ms Rita, and all of the many other people whom I was able to connect with during our time. Afterwards, we head home and start up our Appalachian collection once again! In these last few days, I've already started setting aside nice tennis shoes for this time next year, and have happily checked off our back-to-school drive from the rest of our drives that we have to fill the H.U.G.S. year!

To everybody who has donated just one pair of shoes, thank you so much! You have probably walked through some special moments in those shoes, and now they have gone on to walk someone else through their special moments. Your giving heart may have very well changed someones life!

Much Love,

O. Wright

CEO and Founder of H.U.G.S.

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