When Steven Nelson visited Haiti for the first time on a mission trip, he knew he wanted to help — in any small way — ease the burden of the Haitian people. When he visited for the second time, he came up with a solution.

“It wasn’t so much what I saw as it was what I heard,” said Nelson, Highmark’s senior vice president of product, marketing, and strategy. On the last day of his second trip, Nelson asked a group of Haitian women what Highmark could provide that would help most. “Almost instantly, all of the women said, collectively, ‘shoes for the kids.’ It’s just a huge — absolutely huge — need.”

As one of the poorest countries in the world, with 10 million people in a 10,714-square-foot Caribbean island — just slightly larger than Massachusetts, but with 4 million more people — Haiti has a 40% unemployment rate, and 80% of its population lives below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Haiti’s health care system is an even bleaker picture. Out of every 1,000 infants, 80 don’t see their first birthday; 523 women die in childbirth out of every 100,000 births.  And disease and infection run rampant, in part because of a lack of proper footwear. Even before the 2010 earthquake that devastated the impoverished nation, bare feet were a health concern. Since then, because of the rubble and the ruined infrastructure, shoes have become an absolute necessity in preventing disease and serious injury.

Donated Shoes Are Being Distributed in Haitian Schools

To help address this need, Nelson developed the “Shoes for Haiti” drive, in which Highmark employees and community members donated new Crocs and Croc-like shoes at various locations in Highmark’s service areas. Now, the shoes will be shipped to Haiti, where Nelson and other missionaries will help to distribute them within the Haitian schools.

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A group of students in Haiti pose with their new Crocs.

Knowing a little about the tumultuous history of Haiti, a former French colony, makes its people’s lack of something so basic as footwear even more poignant. After a 10-year revolution led by slaves and free people of color against the French colonials at the turn of the 19th century, Haiti claimed independence, becoming the first nation in Latin America and the Caribbean to do so. However, many European nations and the United States refused to recognize Haiti as an independent nation until decades later.

Since then, Haiti has been occupied by foreign military presences, struggled through periods of civil and political unrest, and witnessed multiple coups d’état. Then, in 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the island nation, killing thousands of Haitians and leaving more than a million homeless. In 2014, the country is still on the long road to recovery.

“Shoes for Haiti” Donations More Than Doubled in Year Two

Over the years, Shoes for Haiti has been a huge success. In the 2014 drive, Highmark employees and community members contributed 1,775 pairs of Crocs and Croc-like shoes to the drive, shattering last year’s record of 750 pairs. Contributors donated shoes at Highmark Direct stores in the South Hills, Monroeville, North Fayette, and the North Hills, as well as at Highmark’s headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh.

While Nelson readily admits that the significant problems of Haiti span far beyond the need for durable, reliable shoes, he knows that every effort counts, and that every contribution toward the betterment of this impoverished nation — just a two-hour flight from Miami International Airport — is a small step in the right direction.

That small step, though, can make a tremendous impact on the life of a Haitian child. Nelson helped to deliver the shoes after last year’s drive and described the experience as “powerful,” with many children instantly cherishing their new shoes, and with parents and siblings tearing up at the sight of it all.

“It does go a long way,” said Nelson, reflecting on the impact of this, and other charitable deeds. The important thing, he said, is to get involved. Whether locally, nationally, or internationally, helping others can be as easy as making a donation, or as involved as signing up for a mission trip or relief effort.