How to give your old shoes new life by donating them to charity.

Advice on how to make the world better.
Sept. 28 2010 3:02 PM

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

How to give your old sneakers new life by donating them to charity.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Dear My Goodness,
I used to be a runner, but now my sports doctor says running is too hard on my knees. I could still use the shoes for walking, but I've managed to accumulate several pairs. Some of them are pretty ratty but still useable. Is there a good charity out there that gets shoes to people who really need them?

—Sandy in Eugene, Ore.

Dear Sandy,
"We get shoes to give shoes" is the very simple message of Soles4Souls. They'd be happy to get your extra running shoes, even battered ones, though they prefer "gently worn," defined as shoes you would still wear. You do the packing and pay for the shipping to one of their warehouse locations.

Soles4Souls is happy to provide guidance and support for organizing a group shoe drive through a school or church. You might want to partner with the University of Oregon track team. On second thought, maybe with the chess team, whose shoes are probably worn more gently.

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Wayne Elsey, a former shoe company executive who founded Soles4Souls five years ago, estimates they've given away 10 million pairs of shoes so far to people in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States.

He's well-connected in the industry. More than half the shoes Soles4Souls gives come from manufacturers and retailers. They are usually shoes that don't sell or have minor defects that don't make them nonfunctional.

But he and his 30 or so administrative colleagues appreciate the emotional connection that comes with individual giving. Elsey figures there are 1.5 billion pairs lying unworn in closets across America. Driven by the unfairness of some people having too many shoes while others have none, he's pushing himself and his small staff to best their current rate of handing out one pair of shoes every seven seconds.

The impoverished populations around the world who go barefoot are exposed to trauma, diseases, and infections. In some countries, children aren't allowed to go to school if they don't have shoes. Having decent shoes, Elsey stresses, confers hope and dignity.  

Who could question the benefit of getting shoes to people who need them desperately?

Yet simple gifts are not completely simple. Shoes4Souls faces two knotty issues that raise questions for quite a few humanitarian groups. Both issues concern money. The first is the idea of donating stuff rather than writing a check. For donations of things like clothes, blankets, food, housewares, and shoes, the charitable agency has to spend money and employee time on collection, sorting, storage, and shipping. Well-meaning donors who wish to feel warmly about giving something of their own rather than cold cash may sometimes send items that are inappropriate. Relief workers in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami opened some boxes from the United States to find gloves and wooly hats.

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