Some might say the 2017 year has been one of adventure and a broadened horizon for 19-year-old Derrick Pennington.
Earlier this year the Oakdale High School Class of 2016 alum boarded an airplane for the first time headed to Las Vegas. By summer he boarded another plane to Hawaii. Both trips were recounted fondly by the traveler, but paled in comparison to a four day trip taken just a few weeks ago. An exciting trip to Guatemala completed his year with international bragging rights and a passport stamp. It is a trip the former Mustang describes as “life changing.”
In mid-October, Pennington was treated to a trip he had once only dreamed of, but not fathomed as a volunteer of Soles4Souls, a not for profit based out of Nashville, Tennessee.
The young student first learned of the group in 2016 when friend and fellow soccer mate Bryce Hobbs was making plans to attend an outreach in Costa Rica, following graduation. A goal he shared, he’d hope to see through, yet knew financially was not in his reach at this time.
Fortunately for Pennington and many other future selfless explorers, Bryce’s parents, Dusty and Bridgette Hobbs host a not for profit tea booth each year at the Oakdale Chocolate Festival. Proceeds earned from the booth each year are put toward a non-profit the couple feels passionate about.
“We don’t have a non-profit. We just donate the money toward a non-profit,” Bridgette Hobbs said of their booth proceeds. “For years it was for youth soccer. Now it’s for Soles4Souls, it might be something else another time.”
Hobbs shared her belief in the Soles4Souls project, as she saw the life changing effect in her own son upon his return. As a passionate traveler and world peace provider she feels driven to share the experience with others.
“We just wanted to provide people with the opportunity to have a cultural experience other than their own, feel the joy of giving,” she said. “We wanted to provide that for someone who otherwise couldn’t go … really that simple.”
Pennington proved to be the perfect candidate.
“I feel like a lot of people from my generation especially, take everything that we have for granted,” Pennington said. “I really felt my actions would speak louder than my words.”
His “actions” as part of the Soles4Souls project included visiting four different school sites in impoverished villages to tend to the needs of children without proper shoes. During each stop the volunteers clean the feet of each recipient, properly size them and fit them in a pair of brand new shoes. For many of the children, it is their first pair of brand new shoes.
“It was one of the most humbling experiences I will go through in my life,” he said, noting the graciousness and joy of all the children who seemingly have nothing in comparison to children back home.
“That was probably the easiest way to get close with the kid,” he said of cleaning each of their feet, adding that it was his favorite part of the process. “They were so happy that someone was doing something for them.”
Yet Pennington did something more than clean feet and fit shoes for the children of Guatemala, he also took gifts. Gifts by way of his childhood passion and symbolic of his relationship with the Hobbs family – soccer jerseys. The OHS alum traveled abroad not just with his personal luggage, but two duffel bags holding 250 soccer jerseys for the children he would meet.
“They were all collected from the Oakdale community,” Pennington said. “I just put something up on Facebook and it blew up. I had people contacting me I didn’t even know wanting to donate their jerseys. The kids were so appreciative.”
Soles4Souls is described on its website as a “not for profit global social enterprise committed to fighting poverty.” Founded in 2004, to date the organization has distributed over 30 million shoes to persons in over 127 countries and all 50 U.S. states.
While the mission was to provide service by way of foot care and shoe distribution, Pennington shared stories of playing soccer with the children and painting fingernails during his “downtime.” He felt a true personal connection to the children, who he said were no different than his younger sister or her friends back at home. There was, however, one critical difference which proved to be the most eye opening for the new traveler.
“They’re grateful for people to come over and help. They know they need help,” he said. “They’re just grateful for everything. It’s so different than kids here. I can’t say that for everybody, but I can put that (ungrateful) on me as well.
“But now that I’ve gone and seen and just talking to people,” he added, “I’m so much more grateful. We are so lucky.”
During his four day stay, Pennington received a lot of attention via messaging from friends interested in the experience and potentially going themselves. As a result he has now been in touch with Soles4Souls and hopes to organize a trip comprised of Oakdale community members in 2019. The organization offers the opportunity for private trips with groups of 12 to 20. Pennington shared the 2019 date as a goal to allow friends and community members to make plans and set aside proper funding.
“Definitely go,” Pennington said of anyone interested in the opportunity. “Don’t hold back and don’t question it. It doesn’t matter what your age is, but most especially for kids my age. I wish that it was longer.”
“Derrick was chosen because he said he would love to go ... that’s it,” Hobbs said of helping Pennington make the trip through their fundraising efforts. “He hadn’t been out of the country, didn’t have the funds and was about to learn that giving IS literally receiving. Our mission is to help that happen, one person at a time.”
Hobbs and Pennington now plan to team up to help others interested within the community experience this life changing opportunity.
Community members interested in learning of the Oakdale trip contact Pennington at (209) 534-7632. Hobbs may also be contacted about Sole4Souls as well as for opportunities for fundraising toward future Soles4Souls trips by calling (209) 614-9592.