by Anne Kendall // photography by April Knox
Greenwood-based Shoe Closets ensures kids are well-shod
When the Walmarts of Greenwood are having a sale on shoes — specifically kids shoes, and best of all, sneakers — Barbara Olmstead and her shopping crew kick into gear. Often alerted to the bargains by a thoughtful sales associate, Olmstead and other volunteers for Shoe Closets Inc. pull up to the superstores and stock up on the footwear to the tune of three or four carts full. Other customers notice the bulk buys, and if they ask what’s going on, they’ll often listen, then pull out their wallets and hand over a few bucks.
The little tennis shoes are destined for the feet of students at 38 schools across Johnson and Marion counties. Since 2011, Olmstead and her husband, Mike, have been part of an effort to distribute free shoes to children who need them. Today, the Greenwood couple spearheads the work. But eight years ago, they were just part of a small church group looking for ways to help their community.
The church members decided to put some free clothes and footwear in Isom Elementary School in their town. “I’m just sitting there at that meeting like everyone else,” says Barbara Olmstead. “The Bible says you’re ‘quickened.’ I was quickened. So I couldn’t do anything but speak up at that point. It’s a God thing all the way through.”
The makeshift “closet” was a huge hit, especially the shoes. “Isn’t it weird?” says Olmstead. “But shoes: they’re important. A kid grows out of shoes every five or six months, and the families who need some help, that’s not the first thing they can think about. They’ve got to think about where they’re going to live and what they’re going to eat.”
The church group took on a few more Greenwood schools over the next few years. But after a while, they were ready to tackle different projects. So in 2014, while Olmstead was recovering from breast cancer, she asked God for guidance. Meanwhile, her granddaughter had just graduated from IU with a degree in not-for-profit studies and suggested the couple start thinking bigger, becoming a bona fide 501(c)3.
Treading new paths
Today, 45 to 50 volunteers do the work of Shoe Closets. To get a closet, a financially strapped school must be identified. Somebody at Shoe Closets checks the Indiana Department of Education website for schools where at least 75 percent of the students qualify for government-subsidized lunches. A few schools have taken the initiative of asking for a closet, which is fine by Olmstead.
“Ask and ye shall receive,” she says. So far, all of the schools have been elementary schools, though Olmstead says she has “hopes and dreams” of expanding the program through high school some day.
Next, the group uses donations to stock up on enough shoes to start a closet. Initially, Olmstead thought they should forge a partnership with Adidas or another big brand. “But on the other hand,” she points out, “all the kids in the school have Walmart shoes.” She and her associates quickly zeroed in on what students really wanted: sneakers. Donations are welcome, too, but don’t hand over your ratty gym shoes that have seen better days; all donated shoes must be new.
Then, another team of volunteers removes the store tags, replacing them with Shoe Closets’ own, making the size easier to read. Finally, somebody delivers them to a school to start or replenish a closet.
That’s where teachers like Dan Oblon step in. A gym teacher at Winchester Village Elementary on Indianapolis’ south side, Oblon knows all too well which kids’ toes are straining the outlines of their shoes, as well as whose sneakers are ripped and ridden with holes. “When you work with kids day in, day out, you know whether they maybe just left their good shoes at Mom or Dad’s, or it’s a pattern,” he says.
Oblon can’t believe what his lifelong friend Olmstead has pulled off. “It was like, ‘Wow, for free, no strings attached,’” he recalls of learning about Shoe Closets. Before that, he says, “intermittently, churches and other groups would drop off a load of shoes. But [Shoe Closets volunteers] keep up with it and inventory it. If I need a pair of them, I can always call a number, and we’ll have it that day. It’s unbelievable.”
Though Oblon and other teachers try to keep the giveaways quiet, so as not to draw attention to any of the young recipients, children are usually excited to get a new pair of shoes. “A lot of our kids come from homes where they get free and reduced lunches,” he says. “A high percentage go home with food for the weekend. Charity is not a foreign concept for them.”
For every 50 pairs of shoes passed out, Oblon estimates that 49 will yield a “thank you” from the child and no response from Mom or Dad — which is fine, he’s quick to point out, because they probably wouldn’t even know whom to thank or how. That 50th time, a parent will send the shoes back, saying they don’t want them.
“Sometimes we have to push and say, ‘That shoe can catch and (trip), and they’re going to wear a safe shoe,’” says Oblon. “If the parent wants to provide a safe shoe, that’s fine, but while they’re here at this school, they’re going to wear a safe shoe.”
Ziva Cook, for one, has been thrilled to see the excitement on the face of her granddaughter, a 9-year-old going into fourth grade at Harrison Hill Elementary this fall. One day she came home and announced that the school principal, Neal Gore, had presented her with a new pair of sneakers. “She said, ‘I got a new pair of shoes today from Mr. Gore,’” says Cook. “The day he gave them to her, the zipper on her shoe had busted. They gave her a pair of decent shoes.”
Name brands have been a special treat, says Cook. “A couple times, she got Nikes or Filas, and she liked that,” she says. “It’s a much-needed program. I see the shoes on the kids’ feet. Either the back of the heel’s slipping because it’s broken, or the front isn’t right. I’ll miss the program when she isn’t at a school that offers it anymore.”
If it’s up to Olmstead, Shoe Closet–less schools will be a dying breed one day. In the last few years, the group has added socks and underwear. They’ve given away more than 10,000 pairs of shoes, with 4,000 distributed just last year. And that 75 percent threshold of students who must be on reduced-price lunches for a school to qualify for a closet? “There are 17 schools right now in the inside loop of I-465 that we’ve identified that we still want to help,” says Olmstead. “After we do that, what’s to say we shouldn’t go down to 50 percent?”
Crediting the “village” that has come together to help children in need, Olmstead reflects on how she was more prepared to take this journey than she ever knew. “I started an interior design shop,” she says. “I knew how to start things. It was so helpful to have that background. Some of the wonderful clients that I helped are now helping me. If you live long enough, it all comes together.”
To learn more about Shoe Closets Inc., visit shoeclosets.org.