By Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian
One in four people in Richmond wakes up in poverty. Hundreds are left homeless on the street. We can see them scattered throughout the city, standing on corners, lining up outside soup kitchens and shelters, struggling to survive. With so many in need, what can we do to help? One way is to look down.
The main mode of transportation for those living in poverty is their feet. Shoes aren’t a luxury, they are a necessity, but good shoes are hard to find on the street. All too often, those in the most need are left in tattered shoes. But one organization is working to fix broken soles.
St. Peter’s recently teamed up with the relatively new Soles2Share organization for a hugely successful shoe giveaway. St. Peter’s pastor Fr. Gino Rossi worked directly with members of the community and Soles2Share to make the event a triumph. A seemingly small gesture can have such a powerful impact. “I think that when life is tough, every small hand of help feels like a great gift,” said Fr. Rossi. “It is very often that boost needed to persevere through the difficult tasks ahead. Even if it is small, it is still a sign that things can get better. Everyone needs to feel that.”
St. Peter’s has long opened its doors to the less fortunate across Richmond. Its soup kitchen offers people a warm meal and welcome arms. St. Peter’s has many other events dedicated to reaching out to the community. It is planning another shoe giveaway with Soles2Share on September 26.
Soles2Share started when David Hewlett, a former homeless person who still lives below the poverty line and is a frequent visitor of soup kitchens, asked volunteer Robin Telfian if she could find him a pair of shoes, as his had holes in them. He asked a simple question: “What happens to runners’ shoes after a big race?” Robin did not rest until she found the answer.
Her quest led her to Jeff Wells, co-owner of two Fleet Feet Sports stores in the Richmond area. With Ms. Telfian as founder, Mr. Hewlett as Community Liaison, and Mr. Wells as Partner, Soles2Share was born. The organization has already shown impressive growth and promise since its inception only a few months ago.
“Our goal is to put shoes on as many people in need as possible,” Ms. Telfian said. Mr. Wells puts donation boxes in his stores for runners to donate their used shoes, since they replace their shoes every few hundred miles. The shoes can still look and feel like new, making them perfect for this project. Soles2Share then partners with churches across the area to stage shoe giveaways.
The St. Peter’s shoe giveaway was their biggest yet. It attracted more than 100 people, 101 of whom walked away with “new” shoes. Mr. Wells personally sized and fitted each participant to make sure they had the perfect shoes. The effects were immediate. People instantly felt more comfortable and confident.
Mr. Hewlett, who not too long ago was living on the street himself, knows all too well what impoverished people struggle with day to day. “When people feel more comfortable, it betters their lives. While people are homeless, their self-esteem is down. It makes them feel better about themselves to have good shoes on their feet,” he said.
“There is something magical that happens when people know that you care enough about them to take the time to show up, to be present, and to talk to them,” Ms. Telfian said. “Many of the people I interact with feel invisible, rejected, unwanted. My hope is that we always serve people in a way that allows them to feel loved…because that is what truly matters.”
This program isn’t just changing the recipients’ lives, but the organizers’ as well. Ms. Telfian spoke of one participant whom she remembers fondly: “Harry received a pair of shoes during our first giveaway. He showed up with his soles falling off his shoes. The look on his face when he put on his ‘new’ pair of shoes was priceless. He beamed with his beautiful smile from ear to ear. I will never forget it. I kept his old shoes as a reminder of why we started this program.”
Mr. Hewlett says of his work with Soles2Share, “[It] makes my heart warm inside with joy and happiness.”
“We need permanent solutions to homelessness and poverty,” said Fr. Rossi. “Firstly, people need to make good decisions and be motivated to be self-sufficient. They won’t feel self-worth if that doesn’t happen. But in the same respect, everyone needs to know we are rooting for them and want their happiness.”
If you would like to join this effort, consider one of the following: Donate new or gently used men’s or women’s athletic shoes at the Soles2Share donation boxes at either Fleet Feet Sports locations: 5600 Patterson Avenue, Richmond, VA 23226 or 11651 West Broad Street, Henrico, VA 23233. To schedule a pick-up for a large shoe donation, please contact Soles2Share@gmail.com. Volunteer at www.soles2share.org/volunteer/. For more information or to donate money, visit www.soles2share.org .