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Water from the soles of your shoes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 29, 2012 - George P. Hutchings has a hard time hearing over the din of his Fenton warehouse. The cumulative noises of the echo-filled space is usually too much for the 63-year-old former Marine whose hearing was injured in battle. The problem was compounded on an unusually busy day recently, when the batteries in his hearing aids died.

"You'll have to speak louder," Hutchings shouts as he pulls a bottle of clean drinking water out of a warehouse refrigerator before making his rounds. 

"Over here we've got 700 pounds of shoes coming in from Kansas City. Earlier this week we got about 15,000 pounds of shoes in from Nebraska," Hutchings says, surrounded by shoe-filled boxes.

He points to one of them and peers inside: "We call these gaylords; they hold about 500 pounds of shoes. Most shoes we sell by the pound."

A few yards away, workers and volunteers are loading full gaylords into a truck. It's a busy week. Typically, Hutchings says, his staff will fill and empty the warehouse once a week. But on this particular week, they will do it three times, shipping 180 gaylords or 90,000 pounds of shoes.

At age 63, Hutchings is a curious mix of cowboy and bible-belt preacher. Dressed most days in python boots, black pants, a black shirt, vest, bolo tie, and a cowboy hat, he speaks in a lyrical cadence turning tightly worded phrases evidently born in a pulpit.

But he is neither cowboy nor preacher, really; Hutchings is a shoe man — the Shoeman if you take his word for it. His ministry, shoes; his frontier, Kenya.

Hutchings is the founder of Shoeman Water Projects, a Fenton-based nonprofit with a global reach, that collects shoes, sells them in bulk, and uses the profits to drill fresh water wells in Kenya. One hundred thousand pounds of shoes, and you can make the water run, Hutchings says.

It has. Just four years after receiving its first pair of shoes, Shoeman Projects recently passed the 2 million pound mark, and with 20 wells drilled, Hutchings is ready to really let the water flow.


The Shoeman concept is a simple one. Take used shoes from people in the first world who no longer want or need them and sell them to people in the third world who do. Use the profits to buy a drill and outfit a crew, and soon enough you have water.

"I don't want you money, just your soles — of your shoes that is," Hutchings likes to joke. He is an easy-going, straightforward frontman, but the work he is doing is a bit more complicated than the joke or his typical sales pitch makes it sound.

To start with, Shoeman needs to collect about 100,000 pounds of shoes for any given well. The shoes are sold in bulk at roughly 35 cents a pound (Hutchings can get more depending on the quality and condition of the shoe) to a third-party retailer who resells the them to streetside vendors in the Third World.

The benefits of the transaction are many, Hutchings said. Not only does Shoeman receive the $35,000 needed to drill in return for the shoes, but a secondary market is created, providing jobs to shoe salesmen and allowing cash-strapped people from Chile to Lebanon to buy gently used footwear for about $10 a pair.

"A pair of shoes is a life-giving gift," Hutchings said. "If you don't have shoes you can pick up parasites in your feet."

Once $35,000 is in the bank, Hutchings can outfit and train a crew in Kenya, and pay to purchase and operate a rig capable of drilling over 100 feet. When the well is complete, a solar-powered water purification system is installed that can process 10,000 gallons of water a day and store it in a massive tank.

The logistics of such an endeavor are not always easy, Hutchings said, especially in a country notoriously as unpredictable as Kenya, but so far he has seen each project to completion.

With the well in place, Shoeman teaches local residents to operate the purification system as well as basic hygiene and sanitization precautions.

"Our motto is to alleviate as much human suffering as possible," Hutchings said. "I'm going to work hard, but I'm going to have fun doing it."

When the water flows

For Kenyan women thirsty for fresh water, the day starts long before the sun rises, Hutchings said. Waking at 3 in the morning, the women journey miles to a fresh water source through open, unprotected territory. Once there, they load jugs and buckets — whatever — with brown, murky, life-giving water only to return home. Each step along the way is open to disturbance, Hutchings said. In many cases, the women are not safe.

"When I provide a well in a village, it eliminates a day of fear and terror," Hutchings said. The women of the village no longer have to walk miles, risking their safety. The water has arrived.

The clean water promotes hygiene, but more importantly combats diarrhea and cholera — epidemic problems in Kenya, according to Hutchings. What's more, the water allows farmers to cultivate and irrigate once infertile land, bringing to the village much-needed food and income.

"(The water) changes the entire economic complex of the village," Hutchings said. It is one of many steps along a path leading out of poverty.

Completion of a well is cause for water-soaked celebration. Hutchings has seen 20 so far.

The project's simplicity and the relatively quick results have allowed it to grow at a startling pace. Originally housed in Hutchings' kitchen, the Shoeman Water Projects is now a multi-city organization with sleek office and warehouse space to boot. Collection facilities like the one in Fenton are in the works in Kansas City, Columbia, and Arkansas, and Shoeman shoe drives are being held from California to New York.

"When we started out we had no employees, we met at a kitchen table, and worked out of my garage," Hutchings said.

In just four years, much of that has changed, but for Hutchings, the fabulous growth and the wells it helps drill are simply the most recent leaps forward of a project a lifetime in the making.

Connecting the dots

One of Hutchings favorite memories from childhood is going to the local dry-good store once a year to buy a new pair of shoes. His mother would drive the family to the store, and a salesman would find the right fit for each member of the family, testing the size with a push of his thumb on the toe, making sure there was room to grow.

Years later, Hutchings would become that salesman, working for J.C. Penny and then, in another sense, directing Shoeman Water Projects.

Of course there were years in between these brushes with footwear. Hutchings says he was born to be a shoeman, he just didn't know it. He fought in Vietnam, his boots soaked with water in the wet season. He was a pastor, an evangelist, a preacher and an insurance man, until he found a way to combine all into one.

"If you live long enough, the dots connect," Hutchings said.

In 1994, he started Eagle Wing Ministries, which would give birth to Shoeman Water Projects. Originally, though, Hutchings goal was to help international students who were at risk of being deported. He took the students on speaking tours to raise money and awareness and used the funds to pay for their continued education.

One of these students, John Kihumba, changed Hutchings path. A student at Missouri Baptist and a native of Kenya, Kihumba reintroduced shoes into Hutchings life.

"Every time I gave him money, he would send shoes home," Hutchings said.

One day in 1998 Kihumba came to him and said, "George, you have to see the shoes." The "shoes" were 30,000 pairs, bagged, and stored in a warehouse in downtown St. Louis. Hutchings raise the money and shipped them at Kihumba's request. The Shoeman was finally what he was born to be.

Hutchings traveled to Kenya for the first time in 1998. The poverty, the lack of clean water, of health care, and other essentials shocked him.

"I said I can't turn my head, I have to do something," Hutchings recalled.

In the coming years, Hutchings and Kihumba worked to send more than 20,000 meals and millions of dollars of medical supplies to Kenya. But increasingly, the focus became shoes, which save shoeless Kenyans from parasites and injury. Hutchings learned to drill wells along the way and began working with other organizations to bring water to otherwise-dry communities.

Hutchings said he was brought to a breaking point in 2007 when Kihumba was killed.

"I had been working in Kenya for 10 years," Hutchings said. "I had seen the cholera, I had seen the bloated bellies. I really didn't want to go back to Kenya, but I knew how to drill a well, I knew where they needed water — that made me responsible."

And so Hutchings returned to Kenya, and returned again and again. He founded Shoeman and turned used shoes into drinking water.

"I was not born to be a spectator in life but to be a participant," Hutchings said.

If his work appears to have some religious weight to it, it is because it does. Hutchings is a religious man, but he said he doesn't try to push it down people's throats. Instead, he said, he puts Christianity into action, which is, after all, his duty.

In 1967 when he was a U.S. Marine in Vietnam, Hutchings was ordered to go down a hill on a water detachment. First, he bent down to tie his shoe and another soldier offered to take his place. Hutchings said "no," but before he got up the other soldier was already off. Within minutes he was dead.

"I felt like I had been placed under God's protection," Hutchings said. "I am now doing the work I was spared to do. Everything I did was just boot camp for what I'm doing now."

Reaching higher, digging deeper

Hutchings is on hand for each project more or less from start to finish. He is Shoeman's best salesman, the force that oversees the whole process, as deft at stirring up a crowd of donors as overseeing the village celebration of a successful well.

"There are very few George Hutchings out there," David Hansen said. As the founder and director of Water for Kenya, another nonprofit dedicated to drilling wells in Kenya, Hansen worked closely with Hutchings on many of Shoeman's early projects. Hansen and Water for Kenya helped Hutchings purchase his first rigs and then operate them at a number of sites.

"I think of George as kind of like a whirlwind. He's got so many things up in the air at once," Hansen said.

"George is so visible and so charismatic the kids really tied into (Shoeman's) work," said Mary Johnston, the principal of Parkway's Wren Hollow Elementary, who in 2008, hosted Shoeman's first drive.

The school continues to house a Shoeman collection bin and host presentations by Hutching's each year, Johnston said.

But as Shoeman's influence grows — it had its first project in Haiti in January — Hutchings remains ambitious. Too much of Kenya is still dry, he says, and it only gets harder and dryer from here.

After completing his first 600-foot well earlier this year — roughly as deep as the Gateway Arch is high — Hutchings is saving to purchase a rig capable of drilling 1,000 feet through granite. The price tag: $300,000. By his estimate, Hutchings will need 100,000 pounds of shoes a month for almost a year to finance the drill.

That's a lot of shoes, even for the Shoeman.

Nick Fandos is a Beacon intern.