A warm “welcome to Puerto Rico” and a big hug from our bus driver and instant friend, Lily, within ten minutes of landing on the beautiful island were clear signs of the welcoming culture of Puerto Rico. With plans to distribute nearly 1,000 pairs of new shoes in just four days, Samaritan’s Feet would hit the ground running.

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Lush green mountains and aqua green waters occupy your entire vantage point, but every so often you get a glimpse of Hurricane Maria’s effects 18 months after it passed through—debris from fallen trees, abandoned buildings, coffee plantations not producing. Families are still recovering from the financial impact of the storm. We hoped that our gift of a new pair of shoes and a message of hope would provide a lasting memory as well as meet a basic need.

After sharing about the mission of Samaritan’s Feet with the juniors and seniors of the private school Colegio Bautista De Caguas, our first distribution host, about the mission of Samaritan’s Feet, they were eager to serve with us. So eager, in fact, that instead of hurrying home after the last school bell, they patiently waited for our first group of recipients to arrive!

Our special guests, 50 high-school-age children from a local Puerto Rican Boys and Girls Club, arrived with their leaders telling us that many come from single- or no-parent homes, violent backgrounds, or low-income families. Although they didn’t want it to show, the need was there.

“People, especially the kids we are serving today, are used to being independent, not because they want to, but because they need to be. And when someone offers them help, it can be a little shocking,” Jorge, a senior at Colegio Bautista De Caguas, said. One child came in wearing a size six shoe and left wearing size 11—just imagine the difference in his spirit as he is now much more comfortable!

The age, background, or awkwardness of strangers didn’t deter those students from giving everything they had to make those children feel special and loved. The atmosphere soon shifted from a silent stiffness to a cheerful energy as feet were washed, walls were broken down, prayers were said, and instant bonds were created.

“I think this experience woke up the missionary heart that is inside of the young people here at our school. It has woken them up,” Jose, Chaplain of Colegio Bautista De Caguas, said.

At Escuela Elementary Rafael Cordero, a large public school in Cataño, one student exclaimed, “I’ve never seen all the students this excited before,” as he hopped, skipped, and jumped to his chair to have his feet washed and receive new shoes. Rows of children behind him giggled and smiled as they watched other children being served, anxiously waiting for their turn.

Most of the students at this school live in public housing, have limited resources, and bring their own unique stories to school. “One child, he and his family lost their house during Hurricane Maria in 2017. His mom has had two strokes and his brother is dealing drugs during the day to make money. This child is basically on his own. These shoes are very needed for him, and for all our students here,” Yolanda, a teacher at Escuela Elementary Rafael Cordero, described.

Leaders from the Municipality of Cataño mayor’s office wanted to give back in their community alongside Samaritan’s Feet. Some even called their neighbors to come and join us (which they did) because they wanted others to experience what they were feeling. They, along with teachers and school directors, were so enthusiastic about the opportunity to give back, would quietly bring in their own chair and quickly motion for a child to come over to serve. One representative, Nelson, was so moved by the acts of kindness, that he would gently kiss the feet of each child he served, as he encouraged them, told them that they are special, and spoke words of life into them.

After arriving at the same school the next day, our new friends were excited to reunite with us, greet us, and continue conversations from the day before. “I saw a boy at the school that I knew we had given shoes to already, but he wasn’t wearing the new ones. He told me ‘I have them at home, I want to save them because when these wear out, I will need new ones and my mom can’t afford them. So then I will have good shoes,’” Dean, a team member, said about one child he served.

We quickly learned that each of our new friends had a story that they were eager to tell. And we were honored to listen. “I could tell that there was this one girl who really wanted to talk to me. She said thank you for the shoes yesterday and then began to tell me that her father was living in Florida because his grandmother had recently passed away and he needed to take care of things there. So she was living in Puerto Rico with her mother who was also taking care of her brother who had cancer. It seemed like she needed some love, she appreciated the shoes and the time together,” Helen, a team member, described.

A gate covered in barbed wire opened for us and we entered Escuela de la Comunidad Emilio del Toro in San Juan. We soon realized that students from this school come from a community with poor living conditions and lots of various needs.

“One boy came in who didn’t have any socks and his shoes were much too small. His feet were pretty dirty and there were a few open cuts. I spent a really long time wiping and cleaning his feet. His new shoes were three sizes bigger than what he came in wearing. And when it was done he gave me this really special hug. You could just tell it meant so much to him,” Jennifer, a team member, said.

Towards the end of the day, one child came in with socks that weren’t just dirty, but they were actually soaking wet. This boy had to have another pair of socks. After realizing we were out of his size, a Samaritan’s Feet team member quickly took hers off to give him.

We were, again, honored to have a team of Puerto Ricans who were ready to serve with us. This was their community, their children, and they wanted to help. Even a few students helped us translate and washed feet after they received their new shoes. “The children are very happy because we are giving them new shoes,” Omy, one of the student helpers, said.

“If you are given something, you should give back,” Monica, First Lady Office Coordinator at the Municipality of Cataño, said. The generous spirit of Puerto Rico was evident everywhere we went. Their gracious attitude and genuine support for their country is astounding. Puerto Rico has endured some tumultuous times recently, but their resilience and support for one another is inspiring.

“It brings so much happiness to see our students’ faces as they receive new shoes. For something that is so simple, it means so much to them,” Josean, an administrator at Escuela Elementary Rafael Cordero, said.

Even after the Samaritan’s Feet team left, our new Puerto Rican friends and volunteers have continued serving by using the Samaritan’s Feet shoe distribution model. With left over shoes, they quickly put together a distribution at Escuela Elemental Rafael Cordero as volunteers washed the feet of students and gave them shoes just days after the team left. The legacy of love and impact continues on.

As the team left one distribution, a young girl we served called us over and handed us a note she had taken the time to write in English. It simply said, “I will never forget what you’ve done for me.” And we certainly won’t forget the people of Puerto Rico.