SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
At Concourse D at the Charlotte Airport in North Carolina you can get a shoeshine from a man who has a thick African accent and a soul patch. If you're fortunate, you might get to hear a fascinating story, too. For our summer series on the American dream, here's reporter Tanner Latham of member station WFAE.
TANNER LATHAM, BYLINE: Getnet Marsha makes bold promises.
GETNET MARSHA: When you step down from the chair, it's gonna be brand new shoes.
LATHAM: Brand new shoes. Getnet goes by the nickname Getu. He grew up in Ethiopia and he's good at what he does, good like craftsman good. He's immensely proud of his 20-step shining process, yes, 20 steps, and that includes massaging the shoes like knotted muscles with a special conditioner.
MARSHA: I'm conditioning the leather. See, the leather was so dry.
LATHAM: And he's a talker. Tells these shine stories like he's a veteran slugger recounting rookie-year highlights. Like one time, a customer sat down with a $100 bill in his hand. He was all set to buy a new pair of shoes in the Johnston Murphy store nearby. He had stopped at Getu's chair for one last shine. And Getu did such an amazing job, it was like he resurrected the guy's shoes and the man put the $100 back in his pocket. And he tells Getu...
MARSHA: You saved me. So I grin and I say, I'm happy, man, you know, I saved you.
LATHAM: Getu has a bucket of stories like these, mostly about business travelers who slump down into his chair disgruntled and rise up relaxed and smiling. His shine will set you back five bucks. It doesn't matter what you're wearing, boots shoes, whatever. And while a lot of people might consider this low pay for long hours, Getu is thrilled, especially when he thinks about where he came from. At 14, Marsha fled communist Ethiopia on foot.
MARSHA: I walked, literally, two weeks on my foot.
LATHAM: He ended up in Sudan for a while, then Kenya. In 1992, Getu came to the U.S. as a political refugee. Now he shakes his head at the contrast between his now versus then.
MARSHA: Here in America, my worst day, or, you know, like, the ugly day I had, you know, when you take it to Africa, that's the best day, you know, the very best one. You know, that's exactly...
LATHAM: That difference was even more obvious to him when he took a vacation back to his hometown in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, the country's capital city. He met a 9-year-old girl named Aynalem who was an orphan, a street child. One British charity estimates there are about 12,000 of these kids living on the streets or at least making money there. And this particular encounter with Aynalem really affected Getu.
MARSHA: These kids, when they lose their parents, nobody's gonna take care of them.
LATHAM: So he helped the only way he knew how. He bought her a shoeshine box and then he began sending her money. And since then, he says, he has recruited seven other adults in Addis Ababa to care for street children. Getu says he tries to send 10 percent of what he earns at the airport each month to support all of them. He wishes he could send more, but he's got two kids of his own here in Charlotte.
But the street children back in Ethiopia are always on his mind.
MARSHA: Only one thing in my mind, how I'm going to make a difference in these people's lives.
LATHAM: Watch Getu shine for an hour, and you can see him making small differences - one shoe at a time. And when he's finished, every one of his customers gets the same friendly sendoff.
MARSHA: Cheers now.
LATHAM: For NPR News, I'm Tanner Latham in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.