Your best foot forward

Homegrown organization provides shoes for kids

By Joyell Nevins Photos: Bill Franz

Photo: Shoes 4 the Shoeless has already provided a new pair of shoes and socks to nearly 7,000 Dayton-area children in 2015

Kids are just kids. 

I’ve heard this repeatedly as I’ve done stories on teachers, coaches and other people who work with children from Georgia to Ohio, from the suburbs to the inner city. It doesn’t matter what they look like or where they come from, when you get down to it, kids are just kids.

I saw that when I worked with Shoes 4 the Shoeless (SFS), a faith-based organization devoted to making sure each one of those “just kids” in the Dayton region have shoes on their feet. No big deal, right? Actually, children and teenagers wearing shoes that are several sizes too big or too small, or have the bottoms wore completely out, is not uncommon in certain areas of our town.

And that is a big deal.

“It’s a health issue, a social issue and an emotional issue,” SFS founder Kris Horlacher of Oakwood says.

One of the SFS volunteers, Adrian Reagan, who works in the Wright Patterson Air Force Base Reserves, grew up in the inner city of Dallas, Texas and understands first hand what Horlacher is talking about.

“In my family growing up, you wore whatever size shoe was available,” he recalls. “[Having the wrong size or shoes that fall apart] affects everything you do. You try not to get involved in activities. It’s just a small piece, but it’s an important piece.”

When SFS started coming into the schools four years ago, nurses would call after a visit and tell coordinators, “I never knew how many of my kids couldn’t run.” Where before kids were shuffling down a hallway, after an SFS visit, children were bounding back and forth.

While some children shuffled because their shoes were too big, others would have a limp or short walk because their shoes were too small.

Horlacher remembers working with one child who had walked on her toes for so long that she had to be shown by Horlacher how to straighten her toes out.

When I volunteered, which involves measuring each child’s feet, I met an eighth-grade boy who was sure he wore a size 8.5. When I measured, and measured again, I discovered he was a size 11.

That example is a mild one compared to what some volunteers have discovered.

Volunteers have gone as far as bridging the gap from an 11 to a 5, or from a 4 to a 10. They have found socks with blood and warped toes (I have fitted 5- and 6-year-olds whose toes were crossed over on themselves).

Volunteers Jack and Karen Stout from Beavercreek started working with SFS as a way to give back during retirement. They were shocked at what they found.

“The first time, we were hooked,” Karen says. “We cried all the way home. We saw some really sad stuff. Sometimes you live in your own little world and forget there’s a whole other world out there.”

I’ll attest to that.

Although SFS goes all over the region, the first time I visited, we were in West Dayton. I had never been to West Dayton before. Driving around, I had to admit my surroundings looked very different from where I normally roam. After being a substitute teacher in a previous life and seeing the school’s neighborhood, I was prepared to get some attitude or kickback from the kids we were fitting.

But I was wrong. Kids are just kids. They want to run, and they want to play, and they want to be loved. They respond to care and respect, just like you do. It’s humbling when someone is willing to take your hand and let you touch their feet. The younger ones may be more willing to run around and be goofy with me, but the older grades were still gracious. And there was a thread of joy in all of the kids I got to help obtain a new pair of shoes that fit just right.

“The kids are so polite and appreciative,” Karen says.

Horlacher stresses, “We never, ever, have a behavior problem.”

A Rising Awareness

Before SFS was even a thought, Horlacher was working with some college students in tutoring homeless kids at St. Vincent de Paul. For three years, she helped work with the students and the children, but never noticed their feet.

“You just drown in their needs,” Horlacher says. Even though the tutors would sometimes mention to her about someone’s lack of shoes, or poor condition of their shoes, there were too many other needs for Horlacher to focus on.

“One day, I noticed,” Horlacher says. “I am very convinced that it was God who stopped me in my tracks and said look down.”

Horlacher called the head of her department, and then several other ministries, and got the same answer. Nobody did shoes and socks in Dayton, because there were just too many kids, and it was just too big a project. When she talked to the parents of the kids she was tutoring, ill-fitting shoes or shoes falling apart was just a fact of life.

“They didn’t notice either,” she says. “I realized this is a huge problem and nobody’s doing it.”

The final call was to Keila Jenks, who was then a leader with the Dayton Urban Ministry Center. When Horlacher told Jenks about what she was thinking of starting, Jenks started to cry.

“She said, ‘I can’t believe you called me about this,’” Horlacher remembers.

That same day, Jenks had been meeting with a mother, her son and three daughters who needed housing help. The teenage son was limping badly, she says. But when Jenks asked about it, he blew it off like nothing was wrong. Before the family left, Jenks asked the boy to sit down and take off his shoes.

“She told me his socks were full of blood. He was wearing size 12 shoes, when he should have been wearing a size 15,” Horlacher says. “That’s when it went from my head to my heart. I had a son the same age and about the same size foot. I felt, ‘that’s my son.’”

Small
Beginnings

When Horlacher started researching the issue, one of the social ministry workers informed her that Horlacher was looking at about 3,000 kids a year.

“I said, ‘oh that’s not bad,’” Horlacher says.

As it turns out, that estimate was extremely low. Try 315 kids in one sitting. Try 8,000 kids in a year, and up to 20,000 kids in Dayton. In 2014, SFS fitted about 8,400 kids. This year, they’re already up to 6,900.

“If I had known it would be that big, I don’t think I would have even started,” Horlacher admits.

SFS got a major kick-start six months in when they won the 2011 Pepsi Refresh Project contest. The resulting grant gave them the seed
money needed to get their feet on the ground and into the schools.

“Nobody could believe a group from Dayton won this contest [against other major city competitors],” Horlacher says. “We didn’t enter as an organization or a cause, we entered as a family, and the city of Dayton rallied around us.”

When SFS won the national contest, news organizations from across the country, including NPR and the Wall Street Journal, hunted Horlacher down for a story.

“I told them, in Dayton people still care about their neighbors,” she says. “It’s a family, and we come together in Dayton.”

Over the last four years, Horlacher and her crew have gone through multiple trials and errors to come up with a streamlined operation for SFS. When going into a school or a group, they bring their entire shoe inventory in a U-Haul sized truck, which was purchased through assistance from the Physicians’ Charitable Foundation of the Miami Valley and Beau Townsend Ford.

The venue sets the volunteers up in a classroom or gym (one summer, the Vineyard set them up in a parking lot), and kids are sent in by classes or set groups. Each child is personally greeted by a volunteer, who brings them to a seat and measures their foot with a special chart. The volunteer then goes to the bags of shoes and picks a couple of options, preferably based on the child’s favorite color or character (for example, preschoolers and young grades love the Pixar character shoes). Just like at a shoe store, the child gets to try on multiple options until they find one that fits just right. They also get at least one new pair of socks.

“We fix a big problem on the spot,” Horlacher says.

“It humbles you—you just stand in awe of the operation,” says Edison PreK-8 Principal Basharus Simmons. SFS had just fitted 240 kids in a morning at his school.

But the volume of students doesn’t necessarily mean the shoe-fitting operation is a quick one.

“Speed is not what we’re looking for,” Horlacher says. She points out that it’s not just about getting the child a pair of shoes that fit, it’s also about taking the time to care.

“There’s so much to it that’s beyond the shoes,” she says.

Volunteer Kristie Culpepper of Beavercreek explains, “It’s a time in their life that someone is showing love to them.”

The heart behind the project shows through the volunteers. Culpepper remembers one of the kids she fitted asked her, “Are you all one big family?”

“The people that come—the joy on their faces and the interaction with them, they love what they do,” Simmons says.

Horlacher agrees, “The process works because of the volunteers. We have the best volunteers in the whole city!”

SFS will go anywhere they are asked, and have recently started traveling as far as Preble County. Many schools they visit on a bi-annual or annual basis. Horlacher notes that SFS has been to every school district in the region.

They have found it is better to work with elementary-age children, as the high schoolers are often either too embarrassed to ask, or are better at getting their needs covered. So for the high schools, SFS leaves new pairs of shoes with the school nurse or counselor, who can dole them out confidentially. They also try to leave 100 pairs of new underwear with the nurse of every school they work with.

SFS is continually recruiting volunteers, funds and new gym shoes and socks. Two store managers work with the organization to provide them shoes at $10 a pair. Several local churches hold occasional shoe drives to stock their inventory. And volunteers come through word of mouth (they do have to go through a screening process first). Currently, SFS works with an average of 70 volunteers a week.

“Right now, we’re not even getting to half,” Horlacher says. “Our goal is to get to every kid.”

For more information or to get involved with Shoes 4 the Shoeless, please visit shoes4theshoeless.org or “like” shoes4theshoeless on Facebook. You can also be a part of their annual fundraiser Shoeless Walk for Kids at 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 21 at the Dayton Mall. Many of the walkers will go barefoot or walk in their socks to help raise awareness. You can walk alone, walk in a team, or simply make a donation online. 

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at JoyellNevins@DaytonCityPaper.com

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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