Donation drives are not a new concept for junior James “Henry” O’Sullivan. In addition to the giving campaigns at Xaverian, when Henry was in sixth grade, his class hosted a shoe drive for Honduras. It was that charity drive that stood out when he learned that he and his brother, Ryan ’26, would be traveling to León, Nicaragua, where roughly half of the population lives below the poverty line. “When I found out that we were going on this trip with my uncle, I knew I wanted to do something like the shoe drive to help.”Henry’s mother, Nathalie, and his uncle, Raul, were born in León.While they left Nicaragua when they were young, they still have family who live there. “My uncle recently spent a year back in León working with a service group and it was a really impactful experience for him. He was able to see what his life could have been like if they had not left, and he wanted Ryan and I to get the chance to experience that as well.”
With the knowledge of his upcoming trip, Henry came up with the idea of a shoe collection, Laces for León, in hopes of bringing shoes to hand out to the people of León. He took the idea to Mr. Joshua Tranfaglia, Xaverian’s Assistant Principal for Student Life, who gave him the green light to start his campaign right away. Between Christmas break and the last week of February, Henry collected over 100 pairs of shoes. “The Xaverian community showed me a lot of support during the campaign,” he said. “Mrs. Briody (math teacher) probably donated 40%of the shoes. She got a lot of her friends to donate as well. It is a really cool feeling to see my campaign reach outside these walls and into the community.”
Collecting the shoes was the easy part. Getting them to León and distributing them proved to be more difficult. After packing as many pairs of shoes as they could in their suitcases, they partnered with a friend of their uncle, Tonio, who helped Henry and Ryan hand out the shoes to the people in his town. “Because Tonio’s family knew everyone in the neighborhood, they were able to help us tape pairs of shoes together, and facilitate getting them to different families in the area.” Henry notes that while some of the townspeople already had shoes of their own, they were worn out and in need of repair, while others, mostly the younger kids, did not have any shoes at all. “Some people didn’t know how to react,” Henry said. “They were just so glad to be given the shoes.” He said that the language barrier wasn’t really an issue, and that the older women and younger kids, in particular, were very loving and asked to take photos with him and his brother.
Before Henry and Ryan left León, their mother suggested they visit with the nuns there. The night they stopped by the sisters were serving dinner and praying over the less fortunate. Henry told the sisters that they were eager to help, and they were warmly welcomed. “The nuns were some of the most faithful people I have met. I admired their powerful desire to keep giving to their community, when they themselves are not well off in their own right.”
“I’ve always been a faithful person, and this trip gave me a further reason to believe,” he added. Henry says that he has a better understanding of his family now. “The trip made me feel differently. It has given me a lot of appreciation for what I do have, but I also have a lot of guilt.Why am I allowed to have all this stuff when there are kids living on dirt floors?” Until his trip, Henry says he didn’t really understand the gravity of the poverty in León, and seeing it in person is a lot different than hearing the stories. Despite these conditions, Henry remarked, “There is definitely God there, even if it doesn’t look like it.”
Henry already has an idea of what he would like to do next if given the opportunity to return to León. “I want to teach surf lessons,” he says, explaining that he and his brother spent a little time at the beach where they noticed a lot of younger kids asking to borrow surf boards. “It would be about building community and giving them a positive outlet.” For now, Henry hopes the Laces for León campaign and his continued participation in Xaverian service opportunities inspires his classmates to find their own paths for service. “If my classmates have an idea for a service campaign, they should go for it. Mr.Tranfaglia is not going to say no.”