Kids show up to West Virginia schools in worn-out shoes with holes, the used soles separating from the shoes. There are kids who show up in a sibling’s hand-me-down footwear, their smaller feet clunking around in the ill-fitting shoes.
It can be uncomfortable, impractical and embarrassing.
Teachers, school counselors and bus drivers are often the first to look down and notice when a child is desperately in need of a new pair of shoes.
“Unfortunately, we get a lot of requests for shoes during school,” Melissa Harper, who works with hundreds of homeless students in Kanawha County Public Schools, said.
“Shoes are not just a need for my homeless students but for many students across Kanawha County,” she added.
In Mingo County, Homeless Students Liaison Drema Dempsey said the need for new shoes extends beyond the nearly 300 homeless students she oversees.
“It’s county wide, not just the homeless students,” Dempsey said.
She noted there is especially a need for larger men’s sizes, as those tend to be pricier and left out of shoe donation collections.
And elementary school staff at Clay Elementary last year provided shoes for more than a fourth of its students in need of footwear.
‘It may be the only new thing they receive’
Local groups and organizations in other states have stepped up to fill the need, hosting drives and events to gather new and gently-used shoes.
Kerri Cooper, a community impact director with the United Way Central West Virginia, is acutely aware of the need for shoes in Boone, Clay, Kanawha, Logan and Putnam counties.
She signs her emails, “Kerri, The Shoe Fairy,” and spends her days responding to texts and calls from school administrators and counselors about anonymous kids urgently in need of shoes. Sometimes they’re special requests, like a pair of shoes in a wide size that will accommodate a child with leg braces.
“The difference could be $10 for a pair of shoes or $10 to pay on the electricity bill or for food. Sometimes a kid needs a new pair of shoes, and sometimes it gets pushed to the back burner, and I wholeheartedly understand it,” Cooper said.
Shoe requests come in more frequently at the start of the school year and when the weather changes, she said, explaining the requests increase after clothing vouchers have been redeemed.
Clothing vouchers, which 36 percent of West Virginia students used last year, allow qualifying low-income families to receive state money ahead of the school year to use for clothes and shoes.
The money — $200 per child — must be used by the end of October, meaning families on tight budgets can struggle to buy shoes when the weather changes or a pair gets worn out.
“I find that families who do get a clothing voucher shop in August for all the back-to-school basics, but during this time it’s difficult to find warm jackets and boots,” Harper explained.
Once Cooper is aware of the need for shoes, she purchases athletic shoes through the United Way chapter’s Equal Footing Shoe Fund then delivers them within 24 hours to schools’ front offices.
She likens herself to the tooth fairy. She never sees the kids, and they don’t know who delivered their brand new pair of shoes.
“There hasn’t been a day we haven’t delivered shoes somewhere,” she said. “It may be the only new thing they receive all year.”
Young man launches local shoe nonprofit
Isaac Cosby was tutoring kids through Bridge Ministries, a nonprofit in South Charleston, when he looked down and saw kids and teens wearing worn-out, tattered shoes.
“They were getting made fun of,” Cosby said. “That shouldn’t be going on in a place where people have extra.”
A look into his own closet in 2016 — full of unused Nikes — sparked an idea.
Cosby, 26, launched Free Your Footwear the same year out of his mom’s basement in South Charleston.
The small space, lit by strung Christmas lights, is filled with organized stacks of gently-used and new tennis shoes donated by community members. West Virginia University, Marshall University and Hurricane Elementary students hosted drives to benefit the organization.
Cosby and a team of volunteers clean the donated shoes, put in new laces when necessary, and send them around the world and to local homeless shelters and kids in need. Last Christmas, Cosby was able to give new shoes to more than 20 kids staying at the YWCA Sojourner’s Shelter for Homeless Women and Families, in Charleston.
The organization has given away more than 1,000 pairs of shoes to kids and teens since it launched.
“You hand someone a gift that they don’t think they’d ever really get,” Cosby said. “We’re called to help other people, and what better way to do that than to give them something they need.”
How you can help
The United Way Central West Virginia has partnered with the Kanawha County Public Library to collect shoes for students in Boone, Clay, Kanawha, Logan and Putnam counties.
New shoes only may be donated in bins available at five KCPL branches: the main branch in downtown Charleston, Cross Lanes, Dunbar, Elk Valley (in Elkview) and Sissonville. The drive will run through the end of September. For more information, contact the United Way Central West Virginia.
To donate shoes to Free Your Footwear, host a donation drive or request shoes, contact the organization via Facebook.