In America, there is nothing as useless as old shoes,” said Dr. Harvey Roter of Jersey City, a recently retired podiatrist who has found an unconventional way to make use of his medical degree – as well as discarded footwear.
For over a decade, Roter has traveled to Honduras, volunteering for work that draws on both his medical expertise and his passion for social activism.
The project began in 1997, when Baltimore’s Redeemer Lutheran Church joined forces with Johns Hopkins Medical School to organize a yearly trip to Honduras. Roter and a small group of volunteers set out to administer medical treatment and provide health education to the rural community of Atima in mountainous Santa Barbara County. Today, the volunteer group includes approximately 50 doctors and medical personnel along with 40 high school students.
According to Roter, Honduras is an impoverished country with unpaved roads, rudimentary dwellings, and less than hygienic living conditions – and the accommodations are no more luxurious for the volunteers. Despite sleeping on the floor every night and being bitten by “all kinds of creatures,” he described his experiences as positive: “All it takes is going once and realizing how good you feel when you get back,” he said.
Roter said he is often asked how a Jewish podiatrist from New Jersey found himself in Honduras with a Lutheran group from Baltimore. The connection lies in Professor Debra Roter, his “baby sister” and co-chair of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore.
“She set up a public health component for the [Honduras project] group,” Roter said, “which is probably the most important thing that you can do there.” As a country, Honduras ranks among the highest for infant mortality rate. The patients who visit the clinics are primarily children and expectant mothers, and most are illiterate.
In desperate situations, he said, medical professionals step out of their traditional areas of expertise to assist. “We de-worm them. We de-louse them. We come back the next year and it’s the same kids,” he explained, acknowledging the downfalls of short-term treatment.
His sister, he noted, envisioned more extensive outreach – including health, hygiene, and sex education – crafting a program that would provide the Hondurans with long-term tools of prevention. According to Roter, she used “human” resources in the U.S. in creative ways, for example, asking her doctoral students to create comic books showing illiterate patients, through pictures, how to sterilize water.
Roter also drew on his own connections to help provide a solution for an unexpected problem. “In Honduras, shoes are very, very expensive,” he said. “The people walk to the clinic and some of them have to walk for two days from the mountains. Their feet were very bloody and messed up.”
For years now, Roter has been collecting used shoes from a variety of sources, including fellow congregants of Temple Beth El in Jersey City and, before he retired, his own patients. “I put a sign up in my office for shoes and we got thousands of pairs of shoes from my patients,” he said. Today, he still collects at least 1,000 pairs each year, all of which travel to Honduras in an empty cargo boat. The ship leaves Honduras filled with pineapples and returns bearing much-needed and appreciated shoes. “People are crazy about the shoes,” he noted.
One year, the volunteers found a surprise among the donations. “They were all roller-skating shoes,” Roter said, amused. “There’s no place [there] to roller skate. They gave what they had left over.”
While Roter did not make the trek to Honduras this year, he has played an active role in bringing new volunteers into the program. The doctor said he has seen a growth in volunteerism in the U.S., which he attributes to a genuine desire to help the world. “There’s nothing that makes you feel better than coming back and feeling like you’ve really accomplished something,” he said.