Brightly colored tennis shoes spilled out of the cabinets, with dozens of pairs jammed packed together arranged to size.

With fluorescent yellow laces, hot pink accents and other fun adornments, the new shoes were destined for an area elementary school. Once delivered, they would distributed by the school to children in need.

“We’ll hear back from many of the teachers that this is the first new pair of shoes this child has ever had,” said Judy Boyle, a volunteer and board member of Shoe Closets.

Making sure that no child goes without safe, reliable footwear is the mission of Shoe Closets. The Greenwood-based nonprofit organization partners with area schools, providing a stockpile of shoes for students whose families cannot afford a new pair.

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No longer will these children have to wear shoes held together with duct tape, or suffer through pairs that are too big or small for their feet.

Last year, the organization passed out more than 1,500 pairs of shoes to 15 schools. Volunteers with the group already are planning for a bigger and better distribution in the coming months.

“It’s a small way to help. If it shows God’s love; it’s a big deal,” said Barbara Olmstead, founder of Shoe Closets. “God loves a cheerful giver, and this makes you cheerful.”

On an early September morning, volunteers gathered at Olmstead’s home to resupply their make-shift distribution center. They unloaded bags of shoes from board member Judy Boyle’s car, placing each pair on a table to be sorted and placed in the appropriate storage unit.

The bags of shoes were tagged with the sizes, ranging from children’s 11 up to 7, so school officials could easily arrange and pass them out.

Next to the cabinets, Olmstead had set up a white board with the names of every school partnering with Shoe Closets. Dates written on the board tracked when shoes had last been dropped off, and when they needed to return to resupply.

“We can stay up on inventory and delivery. Without something like this, it’s very hard to keep track,” said Don Boyle, a volunteer who made the tracking system.

The beauty of Shoe Closets is its simplicity.

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.

Once a month, volunteers inventory the closets and restock what has been distributed to the students. Those volunteers work with a designated parent involvement educator, who is the liaison between the schools and Shoe Closets.

The partnership helps provide for students who otherwise have no way to get new shoes.

At Winchester Village Elementary School on the southside of Indianapolis, 90 percent of the students are qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

A large number of students are Chin refugees, who often come to Indiana with no personal possessions besides the clothing they’re wearing, principal Natalie Bohannon said.

“A lot of times they come to us, maybe they’ve been in the U.S. for a week, or a few days. If they’re coming in the middle of winter from a sub-tropical region, they have flip-flops on and don’t even own a pair of shoes yet,” she said.

Having a good pair of shoes that fit is one less thing the students and their parents need to worry about, Bohannon said.

“If they’re worried about their feet being cold or shoes not fitting right and hurting, it’s very hard for them to concentrate on their studies and what they need to do here in school,” she said.

Shoe Closets was founded by Olmstead in 2011, through the work of her Bible study group at Community Church of Greenwood. They started talking about what to do for students who only had one pair of shoes, or who needed new footwear.

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. These are students whose families struggle with extreme poverty, Olmstead said.

The group started raising money and buying pairs of shoes for Greenwood schools. Eventually, they expanded into Indianapolis elementary schools as well. At the start of last school year, Shoe Closets was working with seven schools.

This year, that number is up to 19.

“I’ve been doing it in an ‘ask and you shall receive’ way,” Olmstead said. “If they ask to be part of Shoe Closets, they will be good. That’s how we’ve been growing.”

Northeast Elementary School is the only Greenwood school that the organization works with, and last year, the school received 93 pairs of shoes through the program.

But Shoe Closets is also active in Perry Township. In addition to Winchester Village, Abraham Lincoln Elementary Schools are part of the outreach network.

“I always say that here at Winchester Village, we have a mission heart. We take care of the needs of the kids, so they’re able to get a good education. The ladies who bring in these shoes definitely help with that mission,” Bohannon said.

A recent explosion of activity has come in Indianapolis Public Schools and Wayne Township schools. A majority of the organization’s schools — 12 out of 15 last year — are in those two districts.

“We learned that a lot of students still have duct tape on their shoes. It’s still a very viable tool,” Olmstead said. “The need there is terrible.”

Olmstead keeps a stack of letters that students have written, thankful for the shoes they’ve received.

One girl had been wearing her cousin’s shoes since she outgrew her only pair, and was ecstatic to have a new pair of her own.

A student at Indianapolis Public School No. 39 wrote that her only pair of shoes had a hole in them, and her assistant principal had been forced to repair it with tape.

“Then, my teacher sent me to (her principal’s) office and I got my pretty pink tennis shoes. Thank you for helping me!” the student wrote.

To help support this growth and make sure all students in need get shoes, Olmstead and her board have searched out more and more sources of funding.

Olmstead, who had formerly owned the design studio Cornerstone Interiors, has calculated the cost to run a single Shoe Closet. Starting at a school requires at least a $3,000 investment, with $1,000 ensuring the initial cost of 200 pairs of shoes to stock the closet.

The other $2,000 ensures the closet stays operational.

More sponsors have taken up the cause of individual schools, while a number of fundraising events are planned for the coming weeks. Levels of sponsorship range from $20 per month “team members” to $3,000 gifts from “marathon runners.”

An artist herself, Olmstead has planned a “sip-and-paint” wine and art event, as well as an art lunch.

“We’re trying to do some of this fundraising now so we can have what we need when we need it,” she said.

At a glance

Shoe Closets Inc.

What: A Greenwood-based nonprofit group raising money to buy new shoes for needy children in area schools.

Founded: 2011

Why?

“Shoes are a need, especially at such a young age, when the body is going through prepubescent changes. While most parents are working diligently to provide shelter and put food on the table, purchasing new shoes becomes a hardship. With the help of Shoe Closets Inc., families are able to worry less about the endless cycle of buying shoes for their children and spend their dollars elsewhere.” — Shoe Closets website

Pairs of shoes provided in 2015-2016: 1,513

Schools working with: 19

How to help

Be a:

  • Sprinter: Conduct monthly shoe inventory and deliver shoes to a school.
  • Relay Runner: Give a tax-deductible gift, to be used to replenish the school’s shoe closets with socks and shoes as needed.
  • Team Member: For $20 a month for one year, you can become a member of a 12-person team to open a new school.
  • Mini Marathon Runner: $2,000 tax deductible gift will fund the maintenance of an established school for one year. This includes replenishing the school’s shoe closet with more than 140 new pairs of shoes throughout the year.
  • Marathon Runner: $3,000 tax deductible gift will fund a new closet at a school. These funds will provide start-up and maintenance cost for the new school. This includes stocking the school’s shoe closet with approximately 200 pairs of shoes, sizes 10-13 and 1-7.

Drop-off new shoes at the following locations:

  • Stewart Tire & Auto, 2010 East Stop 13 Road, Indianapolis
  • Community Church of Greenwood, 1477 W. Main Street
  • Cornerstone Interiors, 1644 Fry Road, Greenwood
  • Franklin College, Dr. Edward Chikwana, 101 Branigin Boulevard, Franklin
  • Olmsteads’ Homestead, 530 Elbow Bend Boulevard, Greenwood

Information or to donate: ShoeClosets.org or facebook.com/ShoeClosetCharity

If you go

Upcoming fundraisers

The Shoe Closets “Sip and Paint”

  • What: A fundraiser to support Shoe Closets Inc., where participants get to paint a picture while enjoying a glass of wine.
  • When: 7 p.m. Thursday (SEPT 29)
  • Where: Southside Art League, 299 E. Broadway St., Greenwood
  • Cost: $50 donation to Shoe Closets; wine, cheese and all supplies provided
  • RSVP: 997-0066 or ShoeClosetsInc@gmail.com

The Shoe Closets “Lunch and Paint”

  • What: A fundraiser to support Shoe Closets Inc., where participants get to paint a picture while enjoying lunch.
  • When: 11 a.m. Oct. 8
  • Where: Southside Art League
  • Cost: $50 donation to Shoe Closets; lunch and all supplies provided
  • RSVP: 997-0066 or ShoeClosetsInc@gmail.com
Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.