Nicholas Lowinger is a 2015 World of Children Youth Honoree. His is the Founder of Gotta Have Sole, an organization that provides new shoes for children living in homeless shelters in the United States. This month, we caught up with him and asked him to share more about the inspiration behind Gotta Have Sole.
Do you remember an important time in your life when you got a new pair of shoes? Perhaps it was for the first day of school, or for a special occasion. Maybe it was that pair of basketball sneakers your favorite athlete sponsored on television, or shoes that an actor or musician you admire wears. I have one very vivid memory getting a new pair of shoes. I was 5-years old and went to the shoe store to be fitted for a new pair of sneakers. I selected a pair of light-up sneakers. Every time I jumped, ran, or stomped my feet while wearing them, a colorful array of lights blinked up and down the sole. They literally lit up my life! I didn’t realize that just a few hours later when I visited a homeless shelter to volunteer, that the idea of new shoes would have such a profound effect on me.
I’d like you to take a moment and imagine how your life would change if you didn’t have the footwear you needed for school, or if you had to wear shoes that were not your size. This is the reality for hundreds of thousands of children living in homeless shelters in the US who, on a daily basis, have to miss out on many childhood experiences.
After I got my new light-up sneakers, I wore them to the homeless shelter. While wearing them that day, I met children who couldn’t attend school every day, play sports, or be with their peers, just because they didn’t have footwear that fit them, if they had any at all. These kids had low self-esteem and were bullied at school because of the condition of their shoes. Some shared footwear with a sibling, and stayed behind at the shelter when it wasn’t their turn to wear them. I felt so guilty for having new sneakers while these children did not. Even at 5-years old, I recognized this injustice and inequality and was determined to take action. I wanted these kids to have the same opportunities I had, and not be affected by their financial circumstances.
At the time, I wasn’t able to buy every child the new shoes they needed. I only had my own gently used footwear to donate, which fit very few kids. I knew in my heart that someday, I would provide these children with new, properly fitting footwear that they could break in themselves and call their own.
In 2010 when I was 12-years old, I was able to realize my dream when I started the Gotta Have Sole Foundation to give homeless children equal opportunities through the gift of new footwear. Almost six years later, my program is in 106 shelters in 43 states, has mobilized over 4,000 volunteers, and has outfitted over 44,000 homeless children with new footwear to call their own. Children attend school regularly, feel more confident, and fit in better with their peers. Athletes have joined their schools’ sports teams. Children feel valued from the personal attention they receive when volunteers or I give them their new footwear.
Our team of volunteers make sure that every homeless child feels special and valued, by hand-selecting each pair of socks and sneakers and creating a personalized card with the child’s name and a message of hope. These cards have meant so much to the children and have also become a way for them to give back. A blank card is included with each pair of donated footwear. The children at the shelters are decorating them, writing their own messages of hope, and sending them to us so we can include them with the footwear we deliver to other homeless children across the country. These children feel empowered to make a difference in the lives of others, no matter their economic circumstances.
One of the ways Gotta Have Sole Foundation has been able to expand our reach is though our clubs program. Hundreds of youth leaders nationwide run Gotta Have Sole clubs in their schools, first educating their communities about the true face of homelessness today, and then fundraising to provide footwear for homeless children. They are also helping to break down social barriers between homeless and non-homeless children by leading and participating in after school activities with them. My dream is to outfit every homeless child in America with the new footwear they need to succeed and through the expansion of our clubs program, I know I can turn my dream into reality.
I don’t see sneakers as being cool or trendy. To me, they stand for hope, dreams and equal opportunities. When you get home tonight and take your own shoes off, think of them as an opportunity. Everything that happens in your life happens in your shoes: YOUR hopes, YOUR dreams, YOUR future. Homeless children deserve the same, and my goal is to improve their lives, one “sole” at a time.