Share-A-Pair program helps those in need take a step in the right direction
In the wake of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, the nation was quick to mobilize necessary aid for people in need. Impoverished people, especially children, are helped through a number of organizations that get their messages out via commercials and the Internet.
There's no question the need for assistance around the world is widespread. With as much coverage as these causes get, it's easy to overlook the need for aid at home.
Milwaukee business owner Jim Sajdak knows about this need firsthand. For over 10 years, Sajdak and the teams at Milwaukee's three Stan's Fit For Your Feet locations have provided shoes for the less fortunate in the Milwaukee area through their Share-A-Pair shoe drive.
"Sometimes you don't realize the poverty is right under your nose," said Sajdak. "It doesn't have to be Africa; it doesn't have to be Japan. It's right here. You live in the Milwaukee area your entire life and you can't believe this is going on in your own city."
The Share-A-Pair program collects new and gently used shoes at the Glendale, Brookfield and Greenfield Stan's locations, as well as the two Milwaukee area New Balance locations in Brookfield and Greenfield.
Their annual Share-A-Pair Shoe Drive is in February, but donations are collected year-round.
"We really go all-out the month of February and really get the word out, but people bring shoes in all the time," said Sajdak. "People know we are a place where they can bring their gently used footwear. We'll see that they get onto the feet of people in need."
Many of the donations stay local. Share-A-Pair gives collected pairs to community organizations like Father Gene's HELP Center on Milwaukee's West Side and Repairers of the Breach on West Vliet Street.
"We want to keep some here in the community. Repairers of the Breach is Milwaukee's only adult day shelter. It serves the most needy part of the population," said Sajdak. "Once a year we have a fitting day where our managers go there and fit people with shoes. Last September we provided almost 800 pairs of shoes in six hours."
Shoes that aren't put to use here at home are given to Soles4Souls, a Nashville-based organization that distributes shoes to people in need nationally and around the world.
While many of these pairs go to disaster-stricken areas, Soles4Souls, like Share-A-Pair, recognizes need in all areas.
"There are different degrees to what you could call a 'natural disaster,'" said Soles4Souls founder Wayne Elsey. "I believe that there are natural disasters happening in people's lives every day. Whether it be a job loss or sickness, we focus on one pair at a time."
That kind of grass roots philosophy has done wonders for Soles4Souls, who now distributes shoes in 127 different countries. At home, Share-A-Pair has grown similarly through word of mouth and dedicated community volunteers.
"The momentum has really built up," said Sajdak. "When we started, we were happy when we got our first 500 pairs. Then we got 1,000 pairs. And now, it's just gotten to be such a big thing. It's incredible."
Last year alone, Stan's employees and volunteers sorted, prepared and boxed 35,000 pairs of shoes.
"The student volunteers from Marquette University High School have been outstanding in helping us out with service projects," said Sajdak. "There's a Boy Scout troop from Our Lady of Lourdes that has helped us out in the past. Students from Greenfield High School have helped us.
"We've been doing so much ourselves, but it's keeps growing. It takes a lot of hand power to make this work."
Share-A-Pair's ever-growing numbers are also thanks to Stan's stores' customers and community partners.
"We have one gentleman that has made it his personal mission, I think, in life to be our outside shoe gatherer," said Sajdak of regular contributor Jerry O'Neil, a retired teacher from Marquette University High School. "Jerry brings us 10 cases a week. Last year, we had a dad come in at our Glendale store and say, 'You know, my kids beat their shoes up so much I wouldn't want to give them to anyone, but I'm going to buy two pairs of shoes and I'll tell you what, you just keep them and you give them to who you think needs them.' I just thought, wow.
"There have been some real stars besides all the people that bring shoes into our stores," Sajdak added. "We've connected with a lot of schools in the area that have brought in 700, 1000 pairs at a time."
Sajdak believes that these donations make a difference not only for the shoes' recipients, but for the people who donate, too.
"People want to know that they can connect, and it's not always about sending a check," he said. "It's so gratifying. People will walk in with really tattered shoes and are so grateful for something that will just get them through life or get them to a situation where they can get a job interview."
Based on his experiences with Soles4Souls, Elsey agrees.
"People can be world-changers," he said. "Shoes can make somebody look to a better day."
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