Helping Homeless Kids Put Their Best Foot Forward

Style Magazine Newswire | 9/27/2013, 6:30 p.m. | Updated on 9/27/2013, 5:24 p.m.
He was 5 years old and visiting a homeless shelter with his mother, who works in various shelters across Rhode ...
Nicholas Lowinger, 15, started a group that gives new shoes to homeless children. The Gotta Have Sole Foundation has given shoes to more than 10,000 children.

Two years ago, Frencis Velasquez found herself homeless with three young children.

"It's been difficult. Going from shelter to shelter, meeting all these different people. My kids didn't have anything that was stable," said Velasquez, 23.

Keeping up with the demanding needs of her growing children presented additional challenges.

"I had to decide either to spend money on shoes or medicine and diapers," Velasquez said. "I already felt horrible. Not being able to provide them shoes made me feel even worse."

Fortunately, the Rhode Island shelter where she was living worked with the Gotta Have Sole Foundation. Her children have now received multiple pairs of shoes through the organization.

"Having new shoes makes them feel great," Velasquez said. "I remember when one of my sons got his first pair, he was so excited that he just started kissing the shoes. It makes me feel awesome just knowing that they're happy."

Since starting this work, Nicholas has heard many emotional stories.

He remembers one 16-year-old boy who had fled an abusive living situation with his mother. They had to make a quick escape, so the boy put on the first shoes he could get his hands on: a pair of his mother's old winter boots.

With no other shoes, the boy had to wear the boots day in and day out. Not only were they the wrong size, but his classmates made fun of him for wearing women's shoes. The boots became a constant source of embarrassment and discomfort until he received new footwear from Nicholas' nonprofit.

"New shoes can make a child feel good about him or herself. ... They gain confidence; they're able to do better in school," Nicholas said.

Nicholas also remembers a brother and sister who had to share one pair of sparkly pink sneakers.

Each day, the siblings switched off wearing the sneakers. When one went to school, the other had to miss a day. The children fell behind in their studies until they each received a new pair of shoes from Nicholas' group.

"Something that seems so simple, a pair of shoes, made the difference between getting an education or not," Nicholas said. "It's more than just giving them a new pair of shoes. ... That's really what makes it so special for me."

The Lowinger family's garage is full of new shoes that have been donated by footwear companies and stores. If they don't already have the specific size and style that a child has requested, Nicholas uses the group's monetary donations to buy them. The shoes are then shipped to the shelters or, whenever possible, personally delivered by Nicholas.

More than 1,000 volunteers have helped out with the group. Nicholas works 15 hours a week on the project -- a time limit imposed by his mother to ensure that he has enough time for schoolwork and other activities.

Nicholas said he doesn't allow his age get in the way of achieving his dreams, and he encourages other young people to do the same.

"No one is ever too young or old to help others. Kids don't always realize that they have the power to make a difference," he said. "I urge other kids to find a passion, create big ideas and act. Kids can make a huge difference in this world."

Want to get involved? Check out the Gotta Have Sole website and see how to help.