George Hutchings was on a plane returning from water-drilling camp at Living Waters International when inspiration struck. Hutchings, whose humanitarian efforts had included facilitating medical procedures and delivering supplies to Kenya, decided on that day he could do something more.

Shoeman Water Projects drillers, including George Hutchings, second from left, hit water during a recent expedition to Lwala, Kenya. Hutchings is hoping to buy a rig that can drill to 1,000 feet. Source: Shoeman Water Projects

George Hutchings was on a plane returning from water-drilling camp at Living Waters International when inspiration struck.

Hutchings, whose humanitarian efforts had included facilitating medical procedures and delivering supplies to Kenya, decided on that day he could do something more.

“I’d been to Kenya and saw all those kids dying of cholera, diarrhea, malaria and everything I had done was just a Band-Aid,” Hutchings recalled. “I did the best I could, but the next day, the kids were hungry; they didn’t have any shoes. And water is the source of life. That’s the solution to problems; it’s not a Band-Aid.”

Since that moment in 2008, Hutchings has turned donated shoes into water for people in Kenya and Haiti. Hutchings, who goes by the nickname “The Shoeman,” collects donated shoes from churches, schools and civic organizations, and sells them to street vendors in Kenya. He uses those proceeds to buy well-drilling rigs and water purification systems to benefit people in developing nations.

His latest goal is a rig that will drill through granite up to 1,000 feet deep. Hutchings anticipates buying it and delivering it to Kenya later this year. That would allow his group, Shoeman Water Projects, to drill 30 to 50 wells per year. He found a rebuilt rig with a missing stem pipe for $125,000 in the St. Louis area. He said he expects to make a down payment on it so the owner will hold it for six months while Hutchings raises more money.

“Last year, we dug three wells 600 feet through granite, and we had to outsource them all at $40,000 each. I’m saying if we could have put that money into a (buying a) rig, we could’ve … gone down that far and drilled 30 to 50 wells a year instead of these three,” he said. “I like those numbers better.”

Hutchings, 65, said the water-drilling industry has been good to him. He gets help from volunteers like Dominique Durbin, co-owner of Durbin Geothermal in Beecher City, Ill. Durbin has been on two trips to Kenya and helped Hutchings drill five wells.

“If you get out into the country, you’ll find very warm, hardworking people,” Durbin said. “They have such limited resources. They do a whole lot with very little. They still (use) hand-dug wells. Some are brick-lined, some are not. Real drilling rigs … are few and far between.”

Durbin helped turn a vacation Bible school into a shoe collection center after reading a story in a newspaper about “The Shoeman.” “They came and got all the shoes we collected, and we just kind of hit it off and made friends,” Durbin said. “When his team was having trouble drilling holes in Kenya, he called me up and the next thing you know, I’m on a plane to Kenya.”

Hutchings, of Ballwin, Mo., also got some help from Hydra-Fab Manufacturing of Phenix City, Ala., in 2008. His group had collected 156,000 pairs of shoes and was looking at a rig for $19,000. After receiving a tip that Hydra-Fab was running a special on a similar rig for $9,600, he called and was offered an even better deal: one rig for $9,600, another for $7,600 and a third for free-three for the price of one.

But he didn’t have the infrastructure for that large of a project. He needed to train people in rig repair and protection. So he donated those three rigs to California-based Water for Kenya, helped that organization drill for water and started raising more money.

“The Shoeman” said his group has collected about 2 million pairs of shoes, helped drill more than 250 boreholes in Kenya to benefit an estimated 200,000 people, and trained locals in drilling operations.

Shoeman Water Projects has also taken mission trips to Haiti, where volunteers install water purification tanks and repair hand pumps. In January, a team installed five purification systems. Even though Haiti has a high water table, most of it is contaminated. So the group plans to buy a lightweight rig to drill about 200 feet, once enough shoes are collected.

“If we can’t drill for them, at least we can do the water purification which is some help to them until we can get there to drill,” Hutchings said.

Jim Keagy, who had been taking mission trips to Haiti for about five years, officially joined Hutchings’ team last summer. He trains people and organizations to go on mission trips through Shoeman Water Training.

Even though small improvements have been made since the 2010 earthquake killed more than 300,000 people and left 1 million homeless, thousands remain in tent cities, Keagy said.

“They’re still hurting for water. There’s a water supply, but most of it is contaminated,” he said. “That’s part of the reason why the infant mortality rate is as high as it is. There are still issues in some areas with cholera, and they still have issues with diarrhea, and most of that comes from the water. There’s still a big need for clean water.”

Hutchings started Shoeman Water Training because he was getting invitations to drill in India, Afghanistan and other countries. He doesn’t have the money to do it all, so he brings in individuals for training and trades them a water purification system for 5,000 pounds of shoes.

“The Shoeman” is always seeking shoe donations. Shoes can be any style-even flip-flops, boots, cleats or high heels-and must be without holes. His ministry can be reached or 636-751-8197.

“When you give a shoe, there’s a weight, a meaning to it,” Hutchings said. “You feel like you are giving a gift. … People there don’t have shoes. When you don’t have shoes, you pick up hookworms, parasites from abrasions and die a terrible death. So it’s a highly desirable item. They sell very quickly for pennies on the dollar. There’s a market for used shoes and I’m able to raise funds to (drill wells).”