Northwest Yeshiva High School (NYHS) junior, Mathias Cohanim, interviews the founder of Redeeming Soles, a local non-profit organization that distributes shoes to those in need.
For the past two years, Northwest Yeshiva High School’s Green Team has run three shoe drives to donate as many shoes as possible to people in need through Redeeming Soles, a relatively new Seattle-based non-profit organization. Though we initially started organizing shoe drives as another way to reduce waste and recycle, we quickly realized there were other very compelling elements to the shoe drive. The donated shoes help homeless people and in some cases, like in the case of Redeeming Sole’s founder, Scott Sowle, these shoes literally help those down and out to get back on their feet.
This winter marked our third shoe drive. I thought it would be a good idea to go to the Redeeming Soles headquarters, and talk with organization creator Scott Sowle. As it turns out, Mr. Sowle’s story is incredible. After living on the streets for thirteen years, Scott was able to get back on his feet, and start this organization. Since the creation of Redeeming Soles in 2011, over 47,000 pairs of shoes have been donated, and Redeeming Soles is only growing. I met Scott for a few minutes in his South Lake Union facility this January. The concrete structure was an icy contrast to Scott’s warm welcome. There were mountains of shoes everywhere. Here is a summary of our conversation.
Me: Of all clothing articles, what made you decide to collect shoes, as opposed to shirts, pants, or other different types of clothing?
Sowle: “During my thirteen years of living on the streets, at one time I needed a pair of work boots. After thirty days of not receiving a pair, I got an answer from a caseworker at a large organization in Salt Lake City. She told me “We get food, we get clothing, and we get blankets, but we never get shoes.” She had tears in her eyes while telling me this. This was the beginning for me, and it gave me the idea to start this organization once I got my life straightened out.”
Me: You say you were homeless for thirteen years. Can you tell me what caused you to become homeless?
Sowle: “Oh yeah, I spent thirteen years in the streets. I started out in Dallas, then Houston. I then went to Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City for six years there. It started out as drug and alcohol abuse. I was racing bikes professionally, and just got over my head by thinking the world was about me and nobody else. So I ended up on the streets.”
Me: Can you tell me about some of the challenges you faced while you were homeless?
Sowle: “Lots of challenges. A very big challenge was trying to get employment, and trying to get respect as well. Receiving no respect was the biggest challenge for me. Most people will look the other way if they recognize that you are homeless. Nine times out of ten most people didn’t recognize I was homeless because I kept myself very clean. I found resources all the time. I was very good at that so it was pretty decent that way but it was getting respect. That was the major thing.”
Me: How much has your perspective on other homeless people changed since before and after what you went through?
Sowle: “Today…knowing what its like to be living on the streets…the first thing for me is recognizing that 90% of the people out there just need to know somebody cares…somebody actually loves them…somebody will actually stop and listen to them. That’s where it is and it’s trying to get others to understand that too.”
Me: When did Redeeming Soles start?
Sowle: February, 2011, is when it became a Washington State non-profit.
Me: How many people work in this organization?
Sowle: “There is one person right now who wears a lot of hats. We have a board of directors, about seven members right now, including a professor from Seattle University, a lawyer from Foster-Pepper Law Firm, as well as the Enactus group from Seattle University, who have been extremely helpful. “
Me: Over the past year, how many pairs of shoes have been collected?
Sowle: over 46,000 pairs this past year
Me: Is that anywhere near the need for shoes in Seattle alone?
Sowle: “46,000 is not nearly where we need to be to solve this issue. We are just beginning in Seattle. We could easily reach 100,000 pairs with some more recognition. These shoes are necessary. The average homeless person goes through a pair of shoes in 6-8 weeks. With our weather conditions here in Seattle, a person can go through a pair of shoes in one to two weeks because of the wet weather.”
Me: While sorting the shoes, I noticed that at least 75% of the shoes were women’s. Is that common?
Sowle: (laughs) “That’s very common. The average woman has 23 pairs of shoes while the average man owns 4-6 pairs of shoes.”
Me: What Kind of shoes are needed most?
Sowle: “Well, casual shoes and leather shoes are our biggest needs. Children’s shoes…huge. We just don’t get children’s shoes. And of course men’s shoes. We’ve gotten hooked up with Red Wings Shoes which is a work book manufacture. That has been awesome thing for us because we very seldom get work books are now we are getting 30-40 pairs a week instead of a year and that has been huge.”
Scott continued to tell me that the goal of providing shoes for all who need is challenging but he is partnering up with other businesses and organizations like Brooks and Red Wing to meet the challenge. Redeeming Soles volunteers clean, prepare, sort and box up the shoes for other organizations to pick them up to distribute to those in need. Not all shoes can be reused this way. If shoes are too damaged or not suitable for wear, they are sent to a special bin for shredding to be recycled into playground surfaces.
There are many volunteer opportunities available at Redeeming Soles from cleaning and sorting to web design and social media marketing. The Northwest Yeshiva High School's Green Team will be partnering with Scott this spring to help in the warehouse.
I am very grateful to Scott for letting me interview him. He is an inspiration. He fought the odds and got off the streets but he didn’t forget his experiences or run from them. He looked back and put his efforts into helping others.
I look forward to working more with Scott Sowle and Redeeming Soles this spring. The NYHS Green Team will be helping sort and box up shoes for distribution. If you are interested in joining us, please email me at email@example.com.