Making a Difference West Edition

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Shoes That Fit helps needy kids with footwear

One night, Elodie Silva McGuirk was having dinner at a restaurant in Claremont, when a school secretary in the next booth started talking to a colleague about a little boy who came to her office crying because his feet hurt.

Turns out his parents had folded his toes under so that he could fit into his shoes, which were obviously too small. He couldn’t concentrate in class because he was in obvious pain.

 McGuirk asked the woman why she didn’t buy the little boy some shoes. The woman replied that there were hundreds of children at the school in the same situation and that she didn’t know where to begin.

That’s when a light bulb went off in McGuirk’s head. She decided to remedy the situation at that school by calling them to get the shoe sizes of kids in need. She then went back to her job as a financial aid coordinator at Harvey Mudd College and made a bulletin board where she asked for donations by putting up cards with the name of 40 children, along with their shoe sizes. Two days later, she had 40 pairs of shoes under her desk. Thus was born Shoes That Fit.

That was in 1992. Some 27 years later, Shoes That Fit, reportedly the largest national organization of its kind, provides 131,000 pairs of shoes to kids every year at 2,500 schools across the country.

The first year Shoes That Fit was in one school. The second year they were in five. By the third year they were in 11. The fourth year they were at 33 sites. When McGuirk left the college in 2003, Shoes That Fit was in 476 sites in 28 states.

Since the launch of Shoes That Fit, with the help of corporate sponsors, volunteer groups and individual donors, more than two million pairs of new shoes and other necessities, like socks and other clothing, have been raised and distributed to children in need across the country.

The purpose of the program is to make kids feel good about themselves.

Ramona Zepeda, Shoes That Fit’s donor relations and communications manager, said the organization’s mission is to tackle one of the most visible signs of poverty in America by giving kids in need new athletic shoes to attend school with dignity and joy prepared to learn, play and thrive.

 There is a quote by Christian Louboutin that co-signs that thought: “Shoes transform your body language and attitude. They lift you physically and emotionally.”

“As an adult, this is something you overlook,” Zepeda said. “Your shoe size doesn’t change. For us, it’s easy to go on Amazon and click to get new shoes. For kids, it’s harder. Their feet are always growing. It’s hard for parents when they have to keep paying for new shoes.”

Shoes That Fit, which provides shoes to kids up to the age of 18, is now a nationwide effort that helps thousands of schools across America. The Claremont-based organization, with the slogan “Every Child Deserves Them,” accepts no government funding and with more than 90% of its contributions going directly to school children through a network of volunteer-run local grassroots chapters, Shoes That Fit has become a life-changing organization.

Zepeda, who has been with the organization for about a year, said shoe deliveries to schools happen several times a year once they have accumulated enough supplies to distribute to every child in need.

“When we go to a school, the kids get so excited,” said Zepeda. “It’s eye-opening and heart-warming.”

According to Zepeda, schools are selected based on how many kids are on the free or reduced lunch program.

Once a school has been identified, the kids’ feet are measured by the school staff. Zepeda said they usually go up a half size because they know children’s feet will grow. The shoes are then ordered and brought to the school where they are arranged by size. Once the shoes arrive at the school, the kids that are in need are gathered.

“We try to get name brand shoes like FILA, Adidas, and Nike because those styles are current and fun,” Zepeda said.

If not everyone at the school is receiving new shoes, the organization doesn’t want any of the kids to feel left out — so those that are selected are usually sent to the gym.

In order to maintain each child’s dignity, Zepeda said the children are told “they have luckily been chosen to get a pair.”

“That helps with self-esteem,” Zepeda said. “It’s sad when you see kids wearing shoes that are inappropriate for playing, or are too small or are obvious hand-me-downs that are too big.”

Zepeda, 31, said some of the responses they’ve received from children pull at her heartstrings.

“I’ve heard kids say these are the comfiest shoes they’ve ever had,” she said. “Kids say things like, ‘These are for me?’ One little girl said, ‘Now I have my own personal shoes.’ Some of us take that for granted. This is a great opportunity to provide a real concrete need and boost self-esteem. We want the kids to know that they are noticed. We want them to know we see them.”

The shoes are donated through a variety of sources that include volunteer groups who buy shoes directly.

“Sometimes the shoes come from Nordstrom where we have our campaign in their stores,” Zepeda said.

Support is also received through Bombas Socks, Bed Bath & Beyond, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Dodgers Foundation.

Not all of the children receive shoes at school. Shoes That Fit has a warehouse in Claremont that serves kids year-round.

“Per year about 6,000 kids are given shoes at that location,” Zepeda said.

Currently, 48 states have a Shoes That Fit program, excluding Montana and New Hampshire.

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