Everyday, the kids walked barefoot amongst the broken glass and shrapnel covering the garbage dump where they lived, until one man intervened.
Rick gritted his teeth as the doctor began to lance his toes apart, one by one.
That old farmer on the side of the road had warned him. He’d taken one look at Rick’s bare feet crisping up in the summer sun and said, “Boy, I don’t let my donkey get out on the road in this heat ‘cause it’ll cripple him. I guess that makes you dumber than a jackass.”
It was Day One of ‘The Walk’. Rick was 32 miles in, with 308 miles left to go.
He managed a second glance at his feet, torn to shreds by the sun-scorched earth on which he had spent the last thirteen hours walking barefoot. It was the kind of burnt tarmac that would melt your thongs if you stood on it too long. Not only had his toes fused together, but his feet were all shades of red and blistered.
The worn-out preacher closed his eyes and sat back to let the doctor finish his work, thinking again about the promise he had made…
“Hey mister,” had come a small voice in Spanish, and a hand pulling on his sleeve. “Can I swap my toy for a pair of shoes?”
The source of the voice, a little boy maybe seven or eight years old, was barefoot amongst the broken glass and scraps of rusted tin that blanketed the garbage dump where they stood.
It was Christmas Day, and Rick and his elves had driven overnight with a carload of toys to reach the northern slums of Mexico. Following a vulture rather than a bright star, they had stumbled upon a dump filled with mountains of garbage that at first glance seemed to move.
But as they got closer, they realised the moving parts were actually people, dozens if not hundreds of ‘garbage pickers’ – men, women and children who rummaged through the trash for something to eat, wear or sell.
The boy stared intently up at him, a shiny green toy truck clutched in his outstretched hands, and at first Rick was surprised – why would any child give up a toy for some shoes? Especially at Christmas! But as he caught a glimpse of the boy’s feet, it made a lot of sense – cut to pieces by the unforgiving terrain, his little feet were bleeding, blistered, swollen and red.
But there had been no shoes left to give him, no money either. So with a broken heart, Rick gave him the only thing he could, “I give you my word – I’ll come back this summer and I’ll bring you some shoes.”
As a high school teacher and a minister, he and his wife could put together the money to buy those shoes, he thought. But fortune seemed to smile on him just a couple of short weeks later as he drove up to a church where he was booked to speak.
“There were so many Jaguars in the parking lot, you could have filmed a Tarzan movie,” Rick recalls.
Wealthy though they were, the congregation was unmoved by his request for funding – just a few pairs of shoes for the boy and his family.
Finally he managed to convince them to sponsor him 10 pairs of shoes for every mile he walked across his home state of Alabama. There was just one catch – he’d have to do it without any shoes on.
That summer, on the 4th of July, Rick began what he calls his “pilgrimage of a promise” – 547km from east to west, the equivalent of walking across the entire state of Victoria, and he was going to walk it barefoot in the middle of summer, just like his friend down in the dumps in Mexico.
“I zigzagged here and there across the blazing hot ground and I remember burning my feet up, thinking what a dumb idea this is.” He laughs. “This was a dumb idea.”
It was at the end of that first day when Rick had to get his doctor to lance his toes apart after they had welded together in the scorching summer heat. They looked every bit as cut up as the feet of his little Mexican friend.
The next morning, Rick awoke to a nation stirred by the amazing story of a preacher walking barefoot across his home state. The story had been picked up by CNN, ESPN, ABC, NBC – pretty much every major news station in the country.
“My goal was to get 3,400 pairs of shoes for 340 miles,” Rick said. “I ended up that year with 60,000 pairs of shoes, and we went back to Mexico.”
After finding “the little rascal” and his family, they gave shoes to every person in that garbage dump, young and old.
Later, Rick’s organisation bought the dump and converted it into an orphanage, which has since been voted the top orphanage in Mexico.
Since that first year, Rick – often accompanied by his beautiful wife, Kim, and now with his shoes on – has diligently walked across one state every year, sometimes more than one if they’re small enough.
With the help of charitable organisations like Soles4Souls and Roma Boots, they have raised over one million pairs of shoes in the last three decades, and the 60-year-old preacher isn’t stopping anytime soon.
“There’s still one more kid that needs a pair of shoes. There’s still one more mother crying because she can’t put shoes on her children’s feet.”
This year he will walk across his 39th and 40th US states.
“I always ask people, how far will you go to keep your word? So far I’ve walked roughly 25,000 kilometres to keep mine.”
For reference, that’s like walking the entire coastline of Australia almost twice! However, as Rick likes to tell people, you don’t need to walk across the country or even the state to make a difference in your community.
“Just take a step and see where it takes you. You may take a step across the lunchroom and sit down next to the new kid at school. You may take a step at work and talk to somebody that you can tell is going through a tough time.”
He and his wife Kim instil this philosophy of compassion-in-action in their four children, RC, Winchester, Elliot and Dreamer, who regularly join them on the walk as well as their biannual trip to Mexico.
Rick encourages people to keep their donations local, to give to those that are doing good in their own backyard. However, if you would like to learn more about the ‘The Walk’ or make a contribution to their amazing work, you can do so here or on their website.