Virginia Duck is the mother of Sequoia and Cheyenne, two young girls with growing feet. She and her daughters wait in line with nearly 60 other people who are in need of new shoes and footcare. She explains that her oldest, Sequoia, outgrows her shoes constantly.
"My oldest one here, she wears a size 11, bigger shoes than me, so, you know her feet are growing," says Virginia. "She’s only 13, so she’s growing bigger and bigger and bigger."
Virginia and her family were at a free footcare clinic at River City Church in Little Rock. Hosted by UAMS, the clinic intends to serve the local homeless and low-income communities by addressing an oft-neglected need: access to podiatric healthcare.
"About a year and a half ago, my oldest one here, I didn't realize her shoes were too small. And she kept saying her foot hurts, so I took her to Children’s Hospital," Virginia explains.
For people who don't have regular access to transportation or housing, something as minor as a blister or tight shoes can quickly turn into bigger problems. This is especially true for people who have to walk for miles a day just to find food and shelter. And children like Sequoia?
"Ended up she had an ingrown toenail because her shoes were too small," Virginia said. "Crazy."
The medical risks don't end there. Dr. Ruth Thomas, a foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon, started this annual clinic in North Little Rock with the national organization Soles4Souls. Thomas explains that in some cases, untreated foot problems can be fatal.
"What we worry about the most are patients who have diabetes," she says, "who get sores on their feet and they go unrecognized and then they develop ulcers and they end up with osteomyelitis."
Osteomyelitis is a bone infection, a serious condition that can lead to chronic health problems and even death. But for the majority of people, how impactful can a pair of new shoes and a foot bath be?
According to James May, a construction worker attending the clinic, it's hard to get back to work if you don't have pain-free feet and the right shoes. He explains how he had to find dress shoes for job interviews and work boots for his manual labor job. May said he attended the clinic because his shoes are worn down.
"Work boots, you have to get about every three months. Even the best work boots," he says. "If you work in them every day, all day, you’re gonna need a pair about every four months. I mean even the best shoes."
Doing a lot of walking and manual labor in ill-fitting or worn down shoes can cause blisters, sores, and ingrown toenails that carry the risk of infection. Getting a job without consistent access to transportation or housing is already a difficult task even without the added obstacle of injured and tired feet. This is especially true for minimum wage retail and food service jobs, which usually require employees to be on their feet for several hours at a time.
Dr. Thomas created this clinic with the intention of fulfilling a need that she felt was overlooked.
With the impact that foot problems can have, why is footcare not a common focus for charities and organizations that serve marginalized populations, she wondered.
Thomas says that free healthcare services for underserved populations should include more footcare, but she understands why it's hard for charities to give away shoes in good condition. UAMS partners with Red Wings Shoes for its Soles4Souls events.
"There was one year that we had to cancel at the last minute because we didn’t have enough shoes," says Dr. Thomas. This night,
the church was packed with people attending the free clinic.
"Oh yeah, they were very excited," Virginia says, talking about her daughters. "Oh yeah, they’re like 'new shoes, yay!' My little one, that’s my diva. She likes the shoes and stuff."
Virginia's youngest daughter, Cheyenne, smiles and shows off her new colorful socks and shoes.
As the cold weather increases this season, so does the need for shelter, warmth, and security. It may be easy to overlook this basic need, but for families like the Ducks and laborers like James May, access to footcare can make a major difference in one's quality of life.
"You ain’t got no transportation, you know, you’re tired, you know, you’re on your feet," says James May. "The better your feet feel, the better you feel, you know."
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.