For the past two years, Northwest Yeshiva High School’s Green Team has run three shoe drives to donate as many shoes as possible to people in need. We do this through Redeeming Soles, a two-year-old Seattle-based non-profit organization. Though we initially started organizing shoe drives as another way to reduce waste and recycle, we quickly realized there were other compelling elements to the shoe drive. The donated shoes help homeless people and in some cases, like in the case of Redeeming Sole’s founder, Scott Sowle, these shoes literally help those who are down and out get back on their feet.
This winter marked our third shoe drive, and I thought it would be a good idea to go to the Redeeming Soles headquarters to talk with Sowle. Sowle’s story is incredible: After living on the streets for 13 years, he was able to get back on his own feet when he started this organization. Since the creation of Redeeming Soles in 2011, over 47,000 pairs of shoes have been donated, and Redeeming Soles continues to grow.
I met Sowle at his South Lake Union facility in January. Mountains of shoes filled the warehouse. Here’s part of our conversation.
Mathias Cohanim: What made you decide to collect shoes, as opposed to shirts, pants, or other types of clothing?
Scott Sowle: During my 13 years of living on the streets, at one time I needed a pair of work boots. After 30 days of not receiving a pair, I got an answer from a caseworker at a large organization in Salt Lake City. She told me “We get food, we get clothing, and we get blankets, but we never get shoes.” She had tears in her eyes while telling me this. This was the beginning for me, and it gave me the idea to start this organization once I got my life straightened out.”
MC: You say you were homeless for 13 years. What caused you to become homeless?
SS: I started out in Dallas, then Houston. I then went to Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City for six years there. It started out as drug and alcohol abuse. I was racing bikes professionally, and just got over my head by thinking the world was about me and nobody else. So I ended up on the streets.
MC: Can you tell me about some of the challenges you faced while you were homeless?
SS: A very big challenge was trying to get employment, and trying to get respect as well. Receiving no respect was the biggest challenge for me. Most people will look the other way if they recognize that you are homeless. Nine times out of 10 most people didn’t recognize I was homeless because I kept myself very clean. I found resources all the time. I was very good at that, so it was pretty decent that way. But it was getting respect. That was the major thing.
MC: How much has your perspective on other homeless people changed since before and after what you went through?
SS: Today…knowing what its like to be living on the streets…the first thing for me is recognizing that 90 percent of the people out there just need to know somebody cares…somebody actually loves them…somebody will actually stop and listen to them. That’s where it is and it’s trying to get others to understand that too.”
MC: How many people work in this organization?
SS: There is one person right now who wears a lot of hats. We have a board of directors, about seven members right now, including a professor from Seattle University, a lawyer from Foster-Pepper law firm, as well as the Enactus group from Seattle University, who have been extremely helpful.
MC: Over the past year, how many pairs of shoes have been collected?
SS: Over 46,000 pairs this past year.
MC: Is that anywhere near the need for shoes in Seattle alone?
SS: Forty-six thousand is not nearly where we need to be to solve this issue. We are just beginning in Seattle. We could easily reach 100,000 pairs with some more recognition. These shoes are necessary. The average homeless person goes through a pair of shoes in 6–8 weeks. With our weather conditions here in Seattle, a person can go through a pair of shoes in one to two weeks because of the wet weather.
MC: While sorting the shoes, I noticed that at least 75 percent of the shoes were women’s. Is that common?
SS: [laughs] That’s very common. The average woman has 23 pairs of shoes while the average man owns 4–6 pairs of shoes.”
MC: What kinds of shoes are needed most?
SS: Casual shoes and leather shoes are our biggest needs. Children’s shoes — huge. We just don’t get children’s shoes. And of course men’s shoes. We’ve gotten hooked up with Red Wings Shoes, which is a work boot manufacturer. That has been awesome for us because we very seldom get work boots. Now we are getting 30-40 pairs a week instead of a year.
Redeeming Soles volunteers clean, prepare, sort and box up the shoes for other organizations to pick up and distribute to those in need. Not all shoes can be reused this way. If shoes are too damaged or not suitable for wear, they are sent to a special bin for shredding to be recycled into playground surfaces.
Redeeming Soles also has many volunteer opportunities available, from cleaning and sorting to web design and social media marketing. The NYHS Green Team will partner with Sowle this spring to help in the warehouse.
Mathias Cohanim is a junior at the Northwest Yeshiva High School and a member of the school’s Green Team. If you’re interested in helping to sort and box shoes for distribution, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.