One for One brings TOMS® to Madagascar

Leiter helps trace feet, make memories for new students

Children in Madagascar pose with their new TOMS® shoes, courtesy of the One for One program. “I think TOMS® are awesome. It’s nice to know there’s kids somewhere else looking stylish,” senior Frank Nahurski said.

“We thought ‘we’re just gonna get a couple hundred pairs of these shoes,’” former Upper School math teacher George Leiter recounted. “They sent us a container of—I think it said—12,000.” While Leiter’s teaching area hasn’t changed much in the last few years, his geographical area has. He currently teaches math at the American School in Antananarivo, the capital city of Madagascar.

Leiter was recently invited to help with a Saturday program that takes care of impoverished Malagasy children. “Basically, it’s a little program for the street kids,” Leiter said. “They work for an hour, then they get to play for an hour, then they all line up and get a snack, a bottle of water, a piece of food.” The work that the children do varies; in this case, they helped clean up a school.

In recent weeks, though, the Saturday program received an extra gift to give away to Malagasy children—a massive shipment of TOMS ® shoes. “We got these clipboards with paper on them. You’d trace around the kid’s foot.” Leiter continued, “We’d write down their names, ages, and match them up with some shoes.”

One for one is both the tag line and business model of TOMS ® (short for “tomorrow”) shoes. For every pair purchased, TOMS® sends a pair to a child in need in countries including Argentina, Ethiopia, Haiti, Guatemala, South Africa, and Madagascar. Similar to many for-profit companies with philanthropic components, their website is plastered with pictures of smiling children holding up shoes. But lines of geography, finance, and culture divide the two worlds of the St. Paul Academy and Summit School student who buys shoes, and the Malagasy one who receives them. Because of those lines, knowing where shoe money is going can be difficult. “I’d heard of TOMS ® shoes before,” Leiter said, noting that he was familiar with the one for one program. “But it’d be easy to say ‘we give away shoes,’ and never actually get around to it. It’s nice to know they’re really giving shoes away.”

SPA has the unique opportunity to watch both sides of the TOMS®-shoe-wearing world. Here in the U.S., TOMS® are more than in vogue, and watching feet for a while will reveal just how prevalent they are. “They’re quick and easy to put on, comfy, and they’re still pretty cheap,” senior Sarah Coleman said. “They go with anything. Sending other pairs [to kids in need] is an added bonus.”

Thousands of miles away, Malagasy children feel the same way. “The kids are definitely excited,” Leiter said. But living in a developed nation, it’s easy to forget just how important something as simple as a pair of shoes is. “I’ve been [helping out with the program] for a while now,” Leiter continued. “It’s fascinating, both sad and happy at the same time. These kids are resilient little guys, but the poverty here—I think it’s the poorest country on earth.” Estimates vary widely, but with a GDP per capita of around $450, the poverty in Madagascar is unquestionable. For comparison, the GDP per capita in the US is just under $50,000.

With such a massive economic disparity, international relations, especially by a private enterprise like TOMS®, can be difficult. “There’s a lot more to the logistics of an intercultural program like this than meets the eye,” Leiter said. At least momentarily, though, TOMS® seems to have figured out those logistics, and TOMS®-wearers at SPA can enjoy being on one end of that intercultural exchange.

“I think TOMS® are awesome,” senior Frank Nahurski said. “It’s nice to know there’s kids somewhere else looking stylish.”