Giving shoes in Peru

09/03/13

Alumna to be a giver in Peru

When TOMS Shoes emailed her about a contest last winter, Stephanie Jankov didn’t know if she should enter.

She had been introduced to the company by Jill Schlabach, her former Bluffton University roommate, and liked its practice of providing one free pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair purchased. She later incorporated that commitment to making a difference into her teaching of freshman English students at Shelby (Ohio) High School, even offering—and buying—TOMS shoes as an incentive for class projects.

Her students’ support would be “cool,” Jankov thought, if she tried to become one of the contest’s top 50 vote-getters, vying for a “Giving Trip” to help distribute shoes in Central or South America. But she also wondered what they would think if she entered and didn’t win—a prospect she didn’t like.

Her moment of clarity came when, in front of a student, she expressed doubt that people “dream big.” Slamming his fist on a table, the student replied, “You have to show us the way,” she remembers. “How do you say no to that?”

Buoyed by backing from the students and her school and college communities, the 2010 Bluffton alumna placed 49th among thousands of entrants in the contest and leaves Sept. 7 for a week of shoe-giving in Peru.

Jankov’s odyssey began with a 100-word entry on why she wanted to win. She also had to choose a word to complete the phrase, “Ticket to …”—she went with “awaken”—and submit accompanying photos. The phrase and photos—of her with students wearing the TOMS shoes she had bought for them—comprised an image on the company’s website, where visitors voted.

The 40 days of voting began March 3 and continued through April 12. During that time, she says, her students “rallied” for her by soliciting votes from upperclassmen, at high school baseball games and a Friday-night event that tied into the project, and via general canvassing of Shelby. “Everyone was so supportive,” adds Jankov, who lives in nearby Mansfield.

As the voting deadline neared at midnight Pacific time April 12—3 a.m. Eastern time—she fought to stay awake to see the results but fell asleep, she says, with her laptop computer in her lap. She stood 46th at that point, but when she woke up at 4 a.m., she couldn’t find if she had remained in the top 50. It wasn’t until later, when her father, Richard, called to say he had seen the final standings at 3 a.m., that she learned where she finished—one vote ahead of the contestant in 50th place and one more ahead of the person in 51st.

Notified the following Monday that she was a finalist, Jankov had to complete paperwork answering several questions, including whether she could handle the trip physically. The final confirmation of her participation then arrived by email while she was grading papers on Sunday night, May 19.

“This time, I was really in shock,” she says. “I couldn’t believe this happened.”

The next step was a June excursion to Los Angeles, where the contest winners heard the TOMS story and toured its headquarters, met company founder Blake Mycoskie and received training for their trips. Recalling employees’ passion for what they do, Jankov asserts “it’s for real, how much they care about making a difference in the world.”

“They spoiled us rotten,” she adds, noting the two pairs of shoes and other clothing everyone received, along with a check for $1,000.

The winners were divided into five groups for Giving Trips to Guatemala, Paraguay and Honduras, as well as two to Peru, between July and December. Jankov had learned shortly before leaving for Los Angeles in June that she would be going to Peru in September.

“I love traveling ... but I like traveling with a purpose even better,” says the Wooster, Ohio, native, who credits Bluffton with increasing her awareness of people who live without things—shoes included—that most Americans take for granted.

In Peru, Jankov’s group will work with Coprodeli, an organization that provides services such as education, housing, health care, food security and job training for poor families near the capital of Lima. Coprodeli is among TOMS’ “giving partners,” locals who assist with the logistics of distribution in the nearly 60 countries worldwide where shoes are given to children.

“I’m sure they’ll steal my heart,” she says about the recipients she will meet in Peru.

Her students at Shelby seem to have had a similar effect on Jankov, who is in her third year at the high school.

“They got me to do this,” she says, admitting that she was “very afraid,” but their faith in her—as well as her faith in God—convinced her to go through with it. She has since read on the class blog, and heard from parents at a recent school open house, how students were inspired by the project.

“It ended up being more about them than about me,” says their teacher, who hopes to blog from Peru so they can read what she’s doing there. “I’m really blessed to work here. These kids are great.”

-B-