The first time I subbed for Alan "Woody" Morawiec at Trickum Middle, all I expected to see was a collection of computers. What else would one find in a technology lab?
I was totally taken in by his collections of figurines: Disney characters, Mr. Potato Heads, Sponge Bobs and most apropos, a dozen or so Sheriff Woody dolls. Then there were all the funky lights and First Lego League trophies. But what really caught my eye, and several times my toes, was the huge pile of shoes lying on the floor.
When I asked about them, "Mr. Woody," as his students call him, was eager to explain.
"My father was from the town of Kobryn, Poland. Out of Kobryn's 14,000 residents, about 7,000 were Jews. After the Holocaust, only two Jews survived. My father, Chaim Morawiec was one of them," he said.
"In the year 2000, I wanted to teach my students and community about the Holocaust and other genocides. What came to mind was shoes. When the allied troops liberated the concentration camps after World War II, they found thousands of shoes in heaping piles. The shoes had belonged to those who had lost their lives under the Nazi regime."
Some of those shoes very likely belonged to members of Chaim's family.
Inspired by a quote from Anne Frank, "How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world," Morawiec, who at the time was teaching in Summit Ridge Middle School, two miles from Columbine High School in Colorado, started asking his students and co-workers to contribute shoes to be donated to charity.
"The 'Holocaust Shoe Project' is my way to educate our students about the Holocaust and do something good for the community," Morawiec said. "It provides a lesson to turn human cruelty into redemptive acts of loving kindness."
Since HSP's inception, more than 35,000 pairs of shoes have gone to the needy in Mexico, Iraq, Belarus, Haiti and Africa.
His inspiration runs high among his students.
"It's a great thing to do," eighth-grader Brett Role said. "It's very important for kids to think of all the struggles in their grandparents' lives."
"It's pretty cool because it gives people an image," Ben Mathew, also an eighth-grader, said. "When I see little kids' boots, I think of all the children who suffered."
Morawiec's HSP drive is open to the entire community. In the past, he has culminated his collection during Holocaust Awareness Week, which starts today. (Yom HaShoah, Hebrew for Holocaust Awareness Day, is April 19.) This year the deadline and designated charities have yet to be set, so "nobody need wait a single moment" to take part in his vision statement of "Tying the World Together, One Pair of Shoes at a Time."
Susan Larson is a writer from Lilburn and contact person for the HSP. Email her at email@example.com.