On Monday morning, a half dozen Nashville Predators front-office employees from across several departments boarded a plane in Nashville and headed 2,681 miles south to Ecuador.
The Preds staff, along with the Middle Tennessee-based nonprofit Soles4Souls, will visit the South American country over the next week, giving out hundreds of shoes to children and families.
Soles4Souls, a global social enterprise committed to fighting poverty through the collection and distribution of shoes and clothing, believes “everyone around the world deserves a good pair of shoes.” The organization was the benefactor of a shoe drive the Preds hosted prior to a game during the 2015-16 season, and while the shoes that were collected in buckets at Bridgestone Arena won’t be the ones being distributed in Ecuador (those shoes will be distributed stateside), the premise is the same: shoes donated by individuals and organizations get put on the feet of those in need.
For the next week as the Preds team travels around Ecuador, check up on this post for a daily recap of their experiences and photos from the day.
After an eventful day at the airport, Nashville Predators and Soles4Souls staff made it safe and sound to Quito, Ecuador, late Tuesday night.
Breakfast was served bright and early this morning, followed by a debriefing from Kristen Schwartz, travel coordinator with Soles4Souls, on the week ahead. Panchito got us safely to our first shoe distribution of the trip at Chillogallo School. Chillogallo is a preschool that hosts approximately 75 children from the ages of one to five years old. After sizing, washing and fitting the children's feet for their new shoes, we were able to play and interact with all the kids throughout the rest of our stay.
After we departed from the school, we were able to explore the city of Quito. Some of the stops included a fantastic lunch at Tianguez Restaurant, Iglesia De La Compania De Jesus (The Society of Jesus Church) and the Presidential Palace. We then headed toward the San Rafael Valley to do our second and last shoe distribution of the day at the Henry Davis Foundation. The Henry Davis Foundation is an orphanage that has been housing children since 1967.
We fitted more than 100 children with footwear, in addition to the orphanage staff, with brand new shoes. We also had the privilege of meeting a board member of the Henry Davis Foundation. He informed us that it takes $35,000 in order to operate the orphanage on a month-to-month basis. It’s hard to express how humbling of an experience this was. It’s amazing to see the children’s faces light up at the distributions throughout the day.
As we sit here exhausted after our first day in Ecuador, we’re ready to proclaim it a complete success.
Today the group departed Quito while driving through the eastern Andes Mountains to arrive in Otavalo.
After practicing our bartering skills at the Otavalo craft and food markets, the crew headed to Huarmi Maqui, Matico's home. Matico is an indigenous and native Andean woman who founded the establishment for other local natives to live and work. In total there are 12 woman that cart, spin, color and hand make the yarn that goes into the creation of scarfs, blankets, rugs, ponchos and many other beautiful items. In addition to teaching us the steps it takes to make these items, they prepared a traditional Andean meal for our entire group consisting of corn, beans, soup, potatoes, more beans, avocado and chicken.
Our next stop of the day was in Carabuela at Modesto Larrea Jijon, a school in Otavalo. We distributed shoes to 144 children, bringing the grand total of shoes given to nearly 300. We felt the impact of our work tremendously when a very grateful mother of children receiving shoes invited us to her home to give us handwoven hats made by her family.
We then made the journey to our new home in Otavalo, San Juan de la Vega; what a breathtaking setting. That night, the staff prepared another cultural meal that was excellent. This meal was prepared and exclusively sourced by their self-sustaining garden on site. As a nightcap, we rehashed the day’s events by enjoying each other's company by a cozy fire in our new accommodations.
We kicked off our morning with a homemade breakfast at San Juan de la Vega. We were all so sad to leave such a beautiful place.
Next up was a long trek through the Avenue of Volcanoes, with the final destination being Riobamba. The Avenue of Volcanoes allows you to see 10 of Ecuador's largest volcanoes, which represent a fifth of the country's overall total. We also drove through four of Ecuador's 24 provinces on our route to Riobamba.
We arrived at Flavio Alfaro School to a crowd of gracious and excited children and their families. Two of the classes sang Ecuadorian greeting songs to welcome us to their school, as well as the teachers presenting us with homemade hats to show us their appreciation.
At this school, we distributed shoes to approximately 160 children, as well as toys and school supplies. The school sits at approximately 12,000 feet above sea level making the weather conditions frigid and harsh. This was evident when we noticed each of the children having chapped cheeks due to the strong winds they face daily.
We left with full hearts knowing that we impacted each of the lives of these children in a positive way. We hit the road again to head to our hotel in Riobamba to enjoy a local meal, and the company of our new Ecuadorian friends. We are more than excited for our two distributions tomorrow. Cheers!
After an early wakeup call, we hit the road for the last distribution day in Ecuador.
Both of the distributions took place in the communities at the foot of the Chimborazo Volcano. The Chimborazo Volcano is the highest point in Ecuador, as well as the highest point on the equator, which makes it the closest point to the sun in the entire world. We were literally on Cloud Nine.
We took a hike with Miguel, a community leader and native of Riobamba, Chimborazo, to learn more about the area and the affect global warming has had on not only the land, but the inhabitants in the area as well.
Our first shoe distribution was at Calshi, a local school in Riobamba. As we opened the doors of our bus, we were swarmed by dozens of smiling faces eager to greet us with hugs. It was the warmest welcome that we could have possibly asked for. Prior to distributing the shoes to the school of 165 kids, they prepared a program of nearly 10 different musical acts. We were so overwhelmed by the effort put forth to organize all of these different performances for our group. Each of the acts reflected different attributes of their native culture. We spent the remainder of the morning distributing shoes to all of the children from the school. To show us their appreciation, they prepared a cultural meal for our group.
The last, and final distribution, took place at Santa Lucia School just ten minutes down the road. This stop was unique in the sense that Miguel was a part of the first graduating class at this particular school. We gave out 73 pairs of shoes at our final stop, totaling 704 pairs throughout the week. After we finished our final distribution we headed back to Quito with plenty of time to reflect on a fantastic week.
Coming into this trip we were prepared to give as much as we possibly could to those in need in the most desperate way. Although we gave to the utmost of our ability, their love and compassion that they showed us in return was far more than we could ever imagine. The random hugs, the thoughtful gifts, the cultural meals, the list goes on... We gave them shoes, and they gave each of us a piece of themselves that will forever be in our hearts.
After a week full of love and laughter from all the children and families in Ecuador, we were able to take our final day to immerse ourselves into the tropical communities of the country.
We had the opportunity to travel west of Quito and make a pit stop in Mindo. In Mindo we made a stop at the butterfly farm and fed and held the butterflies. Soon after, we began our trek into the tropical cloud forest. We jumped in the back of our guide’s truck and traveled 15 minutes into the heart of cloud forest. Once we were dropped off, we began an hour-long hike into the forest to later discover a beautiful waterfall. It was great to be able to take a moment to enjoy the scenery while also taking a dip into the water.
From there, we took a trip back to the local community for lunch, as well as a cacao tour. During the tour we were able to learn about the production process of chocolate from the cacao plant to the final product. We were all very pleased with the sampling that took place at the end of the tour. Yum! Our final stop was at the equator. It was a great way to cap off an amazing trip. Throughout the week we learned so much about Ecuador, and we owe that to the amazing crew that joined us on our journey.
We all look forward to having the opportunity to travel with Soles4Souls again next year. It was a life-changing experience!