In 2010, Scott “Scooter” Sowle was in the middle of a recovery program at the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle, Washington, when he got the idea to start the charity that would become Redeeming Soles. Having struggled with homelessness and addiction for much of his adult life, Sowle had entered treatment with the hope of finally turning things around. As he observed those around them, he noticed that many people at the mission lacked proper footwear, especially for the wet and cold Seattle winters. When a snowstorm hit the city and a man entered the mission wearing only flip-flops and socks on his feet, Sowle knew he needed to do something. He made a flyer asking for shoe donations and headed downtown to Columbia Center to spread the word. Within just a few days, despite the weather, the sidewalk was overflowing with shoes that people had dropped off. Scooter solicited some friends to help bring the shoes back to the shelter and distribute them to those in need. With this simple act, Redeeming Soles was born.
It was around this time that Jessica Reasy, now the executive director of Redeeming Soles, met Scooter, who attended the same church as she did. Jessica was inspired by Scooter’s story of conquering his addiction and homelessness, and once she heard about the shoe donation program, she decided to help out. Coming from a finance background, Jessica helped formulate a financial and business strategy for the group and worked with Scooter and the other founding Board members–Leo Simpson, Matthew Hooper, Will Little, Lacey Faith, and Jonas Harris–to develop a 501(c)(3). Although she worked as a volunteer for the first few years, Jessica joined Redeeming Soles full-time in 2013 after the organization grew to the point that it required a formal leadership team. “I saw how important the need was and knew that it was far bigger than anything I had ever done,” she says of her decision to leave her full-time career behind. “I had been feeling there was something else out there for me, and this just sort of happened. It was something I was really passionate about, and it helped me see a different side of addiction and homelessness. I thought about what Mother Teresa used to say: ‘If you can’t feed a hundred people, just feed one,’ and I wanted to be a part of something like that. A man can’t go to work without work boots, and a woman can’t go to a job interview without the proper footwear, and a child can’t play sports without the right cleats. There was a real need for shoes in our area, and the entire community started depending on us.”
Today, Redeeming Soles has collected and donated 300,000 pairs of shoes to men, women, and children throughout Seattle and the surrounding areas as well as cities like Portland, Oregon, and Houston, Texas. During certain months, they can distribute up to 5,000 pairs a month in the Puget Sound region alone. The organization collects shoes from drop-off sites located throughout the city, cleans and sanitizes them, and then distributes them from its warehouse. They also work with partners like Nike, Red Wing, Amazon, and others who donate backstock and returns, and collect donations at the Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon where participants can exchange their running shoes for a pair of flip-flops at the finish line.
According to Jessica, the organization has grown to become much bigger than any of the founders originally envisioned, thanks, she believes, in part to its singular mission “to empower those in need through the provision of footwear.” “Shoes and socks are actually the most needed and least donated items for shelters and programs, and they are key,” she says. “A child can’t go to school if he doesn’t have shoes, and we all know what it’s like to have our feet hurt because we’re wearing the wrong or old shoes. In the medical community, feet are actually referred to as ‘the second heart’ because they have so many nerve endings, so having the proper footwear to protect your feet is key.”
The organization works directly with shelters and housing programs where anyone seeking assistance and working with a case manager can request shoes from them. “We’re about empowering not enabling,” Jessica says, highlighting why they believe it’s important for the request to come via an assistance program rather than directly from individuals. “Because of limited resources, we think it’s important not to just put a Band-Aid on something by just giving shoes to whomever requests them. We want them to be working with someone on the larger issues.”
In addition to the core shelter distribution program, the organization has expanded to include several other programs including street outreach to the homeless and No Kids Left on the Sideline, which gives kids the shoes they need to play sports so they can stay active and out of trouble and provides shoes to any child who qualifies for state assistance (like free lunch). They also offer a foot clinic where doctors and nurses provide foot care for people who are getting back to work. “Something like two-thirds of homeless individuals complain about foot-related health issues,” Jessica says, highlighting how a lack of proper footwear and care can lead to other complications for those in need. You can also find Redeeming Soles at larger events, such as community resource exchanges, hosted by charities like United Way or local organizations and churches, in which dozens of service providers offer resources to help people get back on their feet–anything from shoes, clothes, and food to medical exams or assistance getting a driver’s license.
Although Redeeming Soles doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to expand their program nationwide (which they hope to do one day), they are actively expanding their service throughout the Washington area. At present, they’re working to expand the school distribution program, which currently serves the Seattle school district, to the surrounding Kent, Sumner, and Enumclaw school districts. “We would like to see it go nationwide once we get the infrastructure set up,” Jessica says. “Our goal is to have an online shoe store where teachers can request shoes for their students and be sent to them directly. It’s key to give children the experience of being normal by providing proper footwear that fits them. Most of the children we serve are getting hand-me-downs, which don’t provide the proper support or don’t fit properly, so it’s important that they get fitted with their very own pair. It’s important to us that they feel a sense of pride when they show up on that first day of school or out on the field for their first practice with their peers.”
With a full-time staff of only three employees, including Jessica, Redeeming Soles relies heavily on volunteers and partner organizations to fulfill its mission. If you’re interested in becoming involved, you can check out volunteer opportunities on their website. In addition, donations of both money and shoes are always welcome. You can drop off new or used shoes at one of their drop-off sites or at an upcoming event (such as the Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon on June 10th) or donate directly. For every dollar earned, Redeeming Soles can provide one person with a pair of shoes.
By Brooke Carey, content editor