hundreds of pairs of shoes are stacked in a southside Indianapolis garage, waiting to be distributed to needy students in the area.

The brightly colored sneakers in sizes 11 to 7 are ready to go to girls and boys whose parents can’t afford to buy new shoes. Barbara Olmstead has been storing the tennis shoes until now — when school starts so kicks can be given out.

Olmstead has founded Shoe Closets, a nonprofit organization that donates new athletic shoes to underprivileged kids. The group is active in seven local schools, including Isom and Northeast elementary schools in Greenwood.

She is using her first major art show at the Southside Art League as a pedestal to promote the charity’s work, hoping to use her voice as an artist to bring awareness to what she feels is a vital cause in the community.

Story continues below gallery

“Giving is very exciting. It’s a great feeling. The Lord loves a cheerful giver, and that’s what I want to attract in people. I want them to enjoy this like I am,” Olmstead said.

The concept of the Shoe Closets is simple. Participating schools set aside some shelving or a small closet to store about 100 pairs of shoes. Organizers have two or three pairs of both boys and girls shoes in different styles and in every size from 11 up to 7.

Teachers are free to decide how to distribute the shoes to their students.

“What is nice is, we can take care of the situation, whether they’ve outgrown their shoes or they’ve torn them,” said Sondra Wooten, principal at Isom Elementary School. “They can go, and if it fits them, the kids can have them. It takes a little bit of stress off the parents to not have to run out to buy shoes.”

Once a month, volunteers do inventory on the closets to restock what has been distributed to the students. Schools go through about a dozen pairs of shoes each month.

To start a Shoe Closet requires at least $3,000. The first $1,000 goes to the initial cost of buying 200 pairs of shoes to stock the closet, then the rest ensures that replacement shoes can be purchased as the school needs them.

Much of the organization has been funded by sponsors at the individual schools, who have provided the startup costs to stock the shoes.

“We always do new shoes,” Olmstead said. “These families are struggling, and these kids come to school limping because their shoes are too tight, or they’re walking out of their shoes, or they have duct tape holding their shoes together.”

The roots of Shoe Closets stretches back four years ago, during a meeting of Olmstead’s Bible study group at Community Church of Greenwood. Members discussed what they could do to help students get new shoes if they needed it.

For a short time, the small group provided shoes for Greenwood schools. Olmstead and her husband, Mike, started a branch in Perry Township’s Winchester Elementary School.

“My heart was quickened — I never thought that this was mine to do, I thought I was just part of the group. All of a sudden, when talking about Winchester, I thought maybe that could be mine to do,” she said.

Olmstead’s granddaughter, Carley O’Connor, graduated last year with a degree in not-for-profit management. She convinced her grandmother to get the necessary credentials to earn nonprofit status. O’Connor now serves as the organization’s executive director.

Shoe Closets was incorporated in November. Olmstead has a background in art and in small business. She formerly owned the design studio Cornerstone Interiors before selling it to her daughter, while her husband owns Stewart Tire and Auto.

“We have the mindset of small business, so it wasn’t too fearful starting this up. We’d done this before,” she said.

The simplicity of the Shoe Closet format means that it can be established anywhere, Olmstead said. She would like to see it spread throughout the country; already, the National Christian Foundation has contacted her about founding outlets in schools throughout Indiana.

Schools that qualify for the Shoe Closets need to have at least 85 percent of the student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

In addition to Northeast and Isom, the organization is in three Perry Township schools and two Indianapolis Public School buildings. Olmstead said she hopes to have add two more participating schools by the end of this year.

“Everybody can participate in this,” Olmstead said.

Olmstead is the featured artist this month at the Southside Art League gallery. Her bold and colorful oil paintings are on display throughout August, with the highlight of the exhibition being a reception Aug. 22.

This is the first time the gallery has partnered with an artist to support another nonprofit group. But the Southside Art League board voted that it would be a good fit.

“Her art is so unique and spontaneous. We’ve never had a show where we’ve had such large pieces, so we’re excited for how it’s turned out,” said Marge Dietel, the gallery coordinator. “She’s just one of those kinds of people who feels strongly and passionate about this particular charity. She has taken this to new heights.”

Olmstead has been doing artwork for much of her life, though this is the first time she’s ever shown it.

“I’ve always appreciated God and his creation, and I’ve always wanted to participate in it. I’m always creating something,” she said.

The goal is to not only showcase her art, but to address the crowd about the work Shoe Closets is doing she said. Two donation stations will be set up in the gallery, and proceeds from Olmstead’s sales will go toward the cause.

“I hope their hearts are moved to be a sponsor, because if I can get a commitment of $3,000, I can open at a new school,” she said.

If you go

Shoe Closets fundraiser

When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. Aug. 22

Where: Southside Art League gallery, 299 Broadway St., Greenwood

What: An exhibition of Barbara Olmstead’s paintings, which are hanging in the gallery throughout August. Wine and cheese will be served, and visitors can make donations to the Shoe Closet charity.

At a glance

Shoe Closets Inc.

What: A nonprofit organization that purchases new athletic shoes to be distributed in schools with high numbers of underprivileged students.

Founder: Barbara Olmstead

Schools involved: Seven, including Isom and Northeast elementary schools in Greenwood.

What they need: Shoes sizes 11 to 7 for elementary aged children.

Levels of help:

  • Marathon Runner: Adopt a school and provide the funds to start up and maintain the shoe closet.
  • Mini Marathon Runner: Fund the maintenance of an established shoe closet in a school.
  • Relay Runner: Works with other donors to fund the maintenance of an established school.
  • Sprinters: Any financial help or donation of new shoes.

Drop off locations:

  • Community Church of Greenwood, 1477 W. Main St., Greenwood
  • Stewart Tire and Auto, 2010 E. Stop 13 Road, Indianapolis
  • Franklin College office of Edward Chikwana, 101 Branigin Blvd., Franklin
  • Cornerstone Interiors, 1644 Fry Road, Suite D, Greenwood
  • Olmstead’s Homestead, 530 Elbow Bend Blvd., Greenwood

Information:, or 997-0066.

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.