A Box of Shoes

Jean V. Roberts (+Video)


Jean Roberts had two pairs of shoes: one for church and one for school. To preserve the precious shoes, she is barefoot most of the time, despite cuts, scratches, and broken toes. Twenty years later, she revisits her village in Grenada and sees that the children still run barefoot. It inspires her to act. She sends donations of children’s shoes to Grenada. But this may only be the beginning.


A few years ago, I went back home to Grenada for a vacation. One day as I was walking up the hill towards my childhood home, a group of kids came running down towards me. As I stood on the corner of the hill watching the children running past me in single file, their legs the size of my arms, it dawned on me that they were running barefoot. Some were in their socks, but most had nothing on their feet.

A loud thought ran through my head: “What year is this?” It struck me like a blow. I had left the island twenty years before, and nothing had really changed. 

I could imagine those children’s shoes lined up inside the front entrance of the school, protected from the rain, dirt, and wear and tear. I did the same thing before coming to Canada. I had one pair of ‘going out’ shoes.  I wore them to church on Sundays. I had another pair for school. For anything else—like going to the beach or roaming the neighbourhood—I went barefoot. 

When I was growing up, my view of the world was as narrow as that 133-mile-long island. In Grenada in those days, we had no television, electric light or running water in our home.

Although the island was very much Americanized, poverty was everywhere. Standing on that corner, after many years in Canada, I was seeing it for the first time, with new eyes.

I remembered playing basketball with my shoes on the sidelines, like spectators. I remembered my mother’s mother coming to town from the countryside. My mother would make sure to give her something to put on her feet before she left, but she would always tie the shoes in her bandana and carry them on her head. 

My shoes were always either too small or too big and no matter where I went, I had to take them off. Running barefoot was as natural as the sand on the beach. However, it did mean that I limped a lot from various cuts, bruises, and broken toes.

When I returned home to Banff, I could not get from my mind the image of the kids running barefoot. I told a friend about my trip and the children’s lack of shoes. She said I was capable of doing something about it. I was surprised to hear that. I was under the impression that only other people with money could do things like that.  She made it sound so simple. She said, “Put an ad in the newspaper and ask the locals for used running shoes.” 

When I called the Banff Crag and Canyon to place the ad, the young reporter wanted to do a story instead. We used my business, Jean’s Tropical Breeze Cleaning, as the location to collect the shoes. The local people read the article and gave me all types of shoes—running shoes, casual shoes and dress shoes. 

I sorted them and packed the ones in the best condition in water barrels. With my husband’s help, I took them to a shipping company in Calgary. The barrels got packed into a crate, and the crate got packed into a container. The container would then go on a train to Toronto, then onto a ship to Trinidad and Tobago, and then onto a local cargo boat to Grenada. The cost was about $500, which I paid. I did this for three years on my own. It was the least I could do. In the fourth year, I got the courage to ask for donations to help with the shipping cost.  People were generous.

I no longer send shoes to Grenada.  I am sure there are better ways to help. I have a new idea.  In my old neighbourhood, there is no library.  I thought I might get my sister, who lives there, to help me start one.

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