Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Article in the SATA on Giving Back

This article was written by Bill Boettge as seen in the online issue of Shoe & Accessory Travelers Association. Bill Boettge is former executive director of both SATA and the National Shoe Retailers Association, and currently is executive director of the Pedorthic Foundation. He tells an amazing story of partnering with Soles4Souls to make a difference. As you will read here, you don't need a large city to host a successful shoe drive. You don't even need a store. You just need to be willing.

Giving Back Gives Unexpected Joy
Bill Boettge

While there are many worthwhile charities and non-profit groups, the footwear industry can be particularly proud of having created two of them: Two Ten Foundation, which helps people in the industry and their families, and Soles4Souls, which assists people in need worldwide.

We all have the opportunity to serve and help each of these groups. Along with thousands of people in footwear, I have worked with and supported Two Ten for the past 40 years. This past spring I had two opportunities to work with Soles4Souls. In both, the ultimate goal was distribution of footwear – and both experiences were incredibly rich ones.

In late April I was invited, along with nearly 50 vendors and retailers, to help in fitting homeless people in the St. Petersburg, Florida area with free footwear, courtesy of Soles4Souls. We spent nearly half a day at a tent city which provides shelter and services to 250 families. During the first hour, we unloaded a truck and started setting up the footwear inventory – some 1,500 pairs of shoes in a variety of sizes, ranging from work boots to casual wear to athletic shoes, for both men and women. More than 95% were new shoes, donated by manufacturers and retailers all over the United States. Then we began the real work – four local charities had invited their clients to come for free shoes. We sized them, asked what type of shoes they needed, found the shoes in our inventory, and fit more than 400 people
individually. (The remaining shoes were divided among the local charities, so they could give them to other clients who weren’t able to come to our event.)

What we hadn’t expected was what we learned in meeting and talking with these “customers.” It didn’t take long to realize that the only difference between many of today's homeless and those of us who were volunteers was that they were receiving the shoes and we were giving them out.

A large segment of today's homeless have college educations, had owned homes and had been earning very decent salaries. Now, in many cases, due to circumstances beyond their control, they find themselves living in tent cities like the one in Florida. A pair of shoes is something most of us take for granted. In fact, when we put our shoes on in the morning, most of us worry about whether the shoes go with the clothing we’re planning to wear. In Florida, we were reminded of how many things a pair of shoes really represents. Shoes let you walk without worrying, whether you’re on pavement or grass; they give you physical support so you don’t feel as tired; they offer you a better chance to find a job.

All of us who participated in the event were not only humbled and thankful for what we have, but also proud to be part of an industry that gives back by helping our fellow men and women.

Less than a year ago, after a career in the industry, I moved to a small town (15,000 population) back in the Midwest, where I grew up. Like most Americans, I believe you should do your part in serving our fellow man, and since the footwear industry gets into your blood, I wanted to continue serving through the footwear industry. Why not collect gently used footwear from the citizens in my new town?

Soles4Souls has partnered with hundreds of retailers in collecting shoes. I didn't have a local shoe store to work with -- but I did have a service organization that was also interested in helping people in need.

While we hear about all the bad happenings in the world, my faith in the good of people was again renewed beyond my expectations.

Twenty-four local businesses and ten schools signed on. Not only did they gladly accept having a footwear collection box in their building, but the businesses provided me with paper bags to hand out at community events and churches, to remind people to donate their gently worn footwear. And when the collection boxes started to overflow, they stored the extra shoes until I made my biweekly pickup. The newspaper ran articles telling the story of Soles4Souls. The radio station gave us interviews and public service announcements. In a little over three weeks, we collected almost 5,000 pairs of shoes from a population of 15,000. Then a local company donated a truck and driver so I could get the shoes to Milwaukee and onto another truck to take to a Soles4Souls collection center.

Have you ever had a woman walk up to you and thank you for doing something that would let her family’s unneeded shoes help someone in the world not as fortunate as they are? Have you ever met a 10-year-old girl with a birthday party coming up who said the only gift she wanted was for her guests to bring a pair of shoes to donate to Soles4Souls? I did – and it was a blessing to serve as the connector between people who need help and people who want to share their own good fortune. My 10-year-old friend, by the way, collected over 38 pairs – and totally amazed her parents.

I wanted to share with you these stories as a reminder that it’s a pretty great industry we are a part of --and if you are offered an opportunity to participate in or help organize either a Two Ten or Soles4Souls function, please do it. You’ll get back far more than what you give. And I invite you to then share your experience with your fellow reps by sending it to info@shoetravelers.org. It sounds almost trite, but in tough economic times, getting a lift for your spirits is priceless.

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