When the Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged the East in 2004, the world watched in horror as entire nations were instantly engulfed in poverty and desolation. Not long after, Hurricane Katrina brought the reality of natural disaster close to home; hundreds of thousands of Americans were displaced or impoverished with no ability to recover. Back home in Nashville, Wayne Elsey watched the disaster footage as a single shoe floated onto shore in the wake of the tsunami. With that image burned in his mind, Elsey was determined to bring relief to areas of poverty. Out of that moment, Soles4Souls was born.
I recently sat down with Kelly Modena from Soles4Souls to get a glimpse into the impact of this organization. Soles4Souls aims to fight poverty by collecting and distributing shoes worldwide. They accomplish this goal through their team of 25 employees who are based right here in Nashville and the surrounding area. In less than 10 years, they have collected and distributed millions upon millions of shoes across the globe.
While Soles4Souls produces impressive numbers, the organization is not motivated by statistics. When I asked Kelly what drives her passion, she didn’t miss a beat. “Stories, 100%. Once I met a kid who was wearing a size four and needed a size one shoe. She said, ‘these were my sister’s shoes and I have to wear them’, so she would wear two pairs of socks. Another boy was wearing his dad’s huge shoes, even though they were so beat up. Just because we have strong ties to Haiti and Honduras and Guatemala and all the places we go doesn’t mean that we aren’t serving our community. That’s something that we are super passionate about and is so needed in Nashville.”
On another occasion, four construction workers were at a building site without adequate shoes. Their supervisor confronted them and threatened to send them home if they didn’t show up to work the next day with steel-toed boots. The men reached out to Soles4Souls completely frantic; they were paid hourly, so missing even part of a day would be difficult for their families. Before the start of the next day, Soles4Souls was able to track down four pairs of boots and prevent the workers from losing their jobs.
Avenues of Outreach
In some situations, like the case with the construction workers, people reach out to the organization. In other cases, Soles4Souls finds areas of need to do distributions and implement their micro-enterprise model, providing long-term solutions to poverty.
“The mission is broken into two: free distributions, 100% free new shoes and the micro-enterprise program,” Kelly explained. “Distributions – this was the birth of our organization. But as time went on and we started serving people, we wanted to help them in a bigger and better way. And although shoes are important and always needed, we wanted to do something to help the economy and help feed their families. We don’t have the liberty of writing a check, but we do have shoes. So we had the idea – what if we gave shoes to people who sold them to get money for their families and give back to the community?”
This was the start of the micro-enterprise program. In a nutshell, Soles4Souls partners with individuals to educate, supply, and support the start up of small businesses throughout the world. “We teach our partners about margins, supply and demand, and inventory,” said Kelly. “They learn how to hire people and how to pay for shipping, so it’s teaching them a skill so that they use to hire more people, which feeds another family. So it just keeps going and going. We want to build character and we also want our partners to build a business.”
One of their partners from Haiti, Marie-Ange, was on the verge of eviction when she began her partnership with Soles4Souls. Over time, she was able to save up enough money to buy a plot of land and build her own home. Check out this video for more of Marie-Ange’s story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M84aorx5Ngs
Involvement in Nashville
While Soles4Souls reaches into lives all across the globe, they are committed to investing in our community right here in Nashville. This month, they are partnering with Lightning 100’s Team Green Adventures and the RAGNAR Relay Series to collect hundreds of shoes to give to the communities along the race route (for more information on RAGNAR, check out this blog post). The race will end with a celebration at the finish line filled with great food, a beer garden, and a huge stage with live music. The event is free and open to the public, so if you’re interested in learning more about Soles4Souls, swing by on October 24th.. Have a beer on the lawn, check out the music, and bring your shoes to donate!
Want to Get Involved?
If you’re interested in supporting Soles4Souls there are several ways to get involved:
- Donate your shoes. They accept all types of shoes in all conditions!
- Come to a distribution. See the impact on the Nashville community first-hand.
- Souls4Soles welcomes travelers to help with distributions worldwide! Find more information here.
- Spread the word! No shoes should be thrown away, regardless of their condition. Soles4Souls can use or recycle anything!
- Be Aware. There is need everywhere. People mask it, but poverty can be literally blocks away from your home. Becoming aware is the first step to making a difference.
– Sammi (Team Green’s Fall Intern)