Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Free Lance Star features Soles4Souls

As seen on Fredericksburg.com, The Free Lance Star featured a great article on the history and founder of Soles4Souls.

After climbing the corporate ladder in the shoe industry, Stafford County native decided to try to change the world, one pair at a time.

Wayne Elsey was watching tsunami coverage 2 years ago when he saw a single shoe wash up on shore.

It changed his life.

Shoes had been Elsey's sole means of support for decades. He worked full-time at the Gallenkamp shoe store in Fredericksburg before graduating from Stafford High School in 1983.

By age 23, he was regional vice president of a national chain of shoe stores. By 34, he was president of his own company.

"Wayne's done great for himself," said Dan Brown, a former Stafford resident who graduated with Elsey. "He was always very business-oriented and aggressive."

But that December night in 2004, as the world witnessed the devastation in Asia, Elsey decided to use his business savvy to give away shoes rather than sell them.

He called industry friends and arranged drop-off points and shipments. He hoped to collect 5,000 pairs of shoes.

He got almost 250,000.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Elsey again watched TV news from his home in Nashville.

He thought: "If we can do that for southeast Asia, what can we do for Americans who are eight hours away?"

Elsey went to Mississippi and helped distribute footwear. He set up a Web site and worked with churches, Scout groups and businesses. He collected 750,000 pairs of shoes.

Things quieted down after the disasters, but something kept bugging the 42-year-old. Elsey thought about people, around the corner or on the other side of the world, who do without shoes every day.

A pair of shoes could protect them from injuries and pollution and give them a sense of dignity.

Elsey formed the non-profit Soles4Souls.

He incorporated a year ago and already has programs in 35 countries.

Soles4Souls hands out shoes to homeless people in Florida and refugees in the Sudan. It has given work boots to unemployed men in New Jersey and dress shoes to battered women in Texas trying to break into the business world.

"If you have a need for shoes, we're there," he said.

Elsey initially juggled his jobs as president of Kodiak-Terra USA and founder of Soles4Souls. The nonprofit had a "shoestring budget," he said, until it got a grant from the World Shoe Association.

A third of the money went to set up warehouses in Alabama and Nevada and to pay 17 employees. Elsey said the rest will be used to hold world-class concerts, similar to Live Aid productions. Money generated will go toward "changing the world one pair at a time," he said.

Elsey decided to leave his post as CEO of the shoe company and to focus full-time on the non-profit he founded. He lost about half his annual salary in the process, but said the timing is right.

"I've made some money and now it's time for me to give back," said Elsey, whose daughter, Melissa, just graduated from Stafford High School.

Those who knew Elsey when he lived in Hartwood aren't surprised by his success or his big heart.

Jackie Busch, his English teacher, saw those traits when Elsey was a teen.
For instance, when he overheard a classmate tell Busch she kept having car trouble, Elsey paid to have the car fixed.

"He would very quietly help anyone he could, with no expectation of being paid back," Busch said. "He was just a good kid."

George Carter supervised Elsey at the Fredericksburg shoe store and recognized him as a "go-getter."

"He will make it successful," said Carter, who owns the store in Rockville. "No doubt."

Kathy Dyson

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