Junior Ellen Barker, president of the High Point University TOMS Campus Chapter, walked side by side employees of TOMS Shoes through the gates of a Nicaraguan school on a sunny morning, braced for the experience of a lifetime.
Despite months of preparation for this moment, she couldn’t hold back her tears when she saw dozens of smiling faces and cheering children waving banners to welcome Barker and 10 TOMS employees.
She was about to do something she had long dreamed of: slide a shoe onto the small foot of a child who otherwise didn’t have access to new shoes to protect their feet and prevent soil-based diseases. It was an act that brought her hard work on the HPU campus and her dreams of changing lives to fruition.
Barker bought her first pair of TOMS when she was in high school because she valued the company’s “one for one” motto: For every pair of shoes it sells, it gives another pair to a child in need. When she came to HPU, she found a thriving TOMS Campus Chapter that had landed a spot on the “Top 10 TOMS Events of the Year” for its awareness week. She got involved in the chapter and soon became president, leading the group through several philanthropic events each year.
“What’s cool about our HPU chapter is that we’re part of a global movement,” she says. “There are thousands of people involved in this, yet the TOMS headquarters really noticed the HPU chapter and how hard we’ve worked to give back.”
In the last weeks of her sophomore year, she received a Skype call from TOMS Campus Programs for what she thought was a routine check-up regarding the HPU chapter.
“But when I logged on to Skype, there were several employees of TOMS Campus Programs gathered around the web cam,” says Barker. “They started talking about how much they enjoyed reading my blog posts and seeing pictures of our events. They told me that I was one of four people across the country they had hand-selected to go on a giving trip with them. I was so happy that I was completely incoherent!”
She spent the next months channeling her anticipation into the One Day Without Shoes event that included a barefoot march through campus led by Prowler the Panther. It landed a spot in the Top 10 list of organizations across the country with the most pledges to go barefoot.
When the moment arrived and Barker was in Nicaragua, she didn’t hesitate for a moment to connect with natives of the country in every way she could.
“We gave out the shoes to many children, and you could tell they were so proud of them. They wanted to keep them nice and clean to show their parents,” she says. “Every place we went, from schools to farms and small villages, they were all so appreciative.”
The group often stayed for several hours to engage and play games with the children, including jump rope and soccer. By the end of the trip, Barker made many new friends she will never forget and experienced a new culture firsthand.
“One of the girls I really clicked with was 14-year-old Louisa,” says Barker. “She knew a little bit of English and said one of her goals was to become fluent in English. It was a great connection because she helped me practice my Spanish while I taught her some more English words. Every time I taught her a new English word, she would give me a high five.”
There was also Wilson, a farmer in a village who was teaching a group of single mothers about agriculture. There was a little boy named Daniel who was wearing a pair of worn-out shoes with large holes in them before the group arrived. Each made an impression on her heart.
“Summing it up? It was just life changing. That’s the only way I can explain it. I may have given them shoes, but the opportunity to help them impacted me more than they‘ll ever know.”
Barker brought all of her experiences back to campus to share with her chapter. While TOMS are often worn for fashion purposes, the HPU chapter places a heavy emphasis on the giving back aspect.
In addition to transforming her views of the world, the trip gave Barker, an accounting major, insight into the kind of company she hopes to work for someday.
“TOMS is a for-profit, and I really want to be in the business world,” she says. “TOMS is exactly the kind of company that I want to work for – one that is unique, progressive and full of youth and innovation. I just love the business culture there, which is different from what people think of regarding accountants. I’m very social, but I like the detail-oriented nature of accounting. Working for a company with a global vision like TOMS is a major career goal of mine.”