April 4, 2012
By Amy Hughes
Most Americans have piles of shoes in their closets that are no longer worn. In many cases, the problem compounds for athletes.
So what did Brenton Allen, a sophomore outfielder on the UCLA baseball team, do when he realized he was low on space for his latest new pair of sneakers?
"I buy a lot of shoes and have a lot of shoes," said Allen. "I was going through my closet to decide which pairs I was going to donate, and my mom suggested that I get involved in something where I could do more than just donate a few pairs of shoes."
Allen took to the internet and found Soles4Souls, a shoe charity that recycles shoes for people in need. The charity started when its founder, Wayne Elsey, who was in the footwear industry, witnessed the tsunami in Southeast Asia in December 2004.
"He was sitting on a couch and saw a single shoe floating ashore," said Soles4Souls Executive Vice President/Donor Engagement, David Graben. "He called a couple of friends and sent 250,000 pairs of shoes to the area. About a year later, Hurricane Katrina hit, and he got those same people back together, and they collected and distributed over 750,000 pairs. That's when he took a step back and said `There are 300 million children in the world without shoes, yet there are 1.5 billion pairs in Americans closets that are no longer worn. Why don't we create a charity that is 24/7/365 and does nothing but collect and distribute shoes?'"
Late in 2011, Soles4Souls started cultivating "College Chapters" of the charity. When Allen looked at the list of colleges, only one school on the list was west of the Mississippi River.
"The list of colleges wasn't that long, and there weren't any schools from California," said Allen. "I went to the apply/registration form and applied to have UCLA as a college chapter. I heard back three weeks ago."
Since that time, Allen has been pushing hard to make his first effort in Westwood a resounding success. Beginning next week, he plans to hand out flyers on Bruin Walk as students enter the second week of Spring Quarter.
"My initial goal was to collect 1,000 pairs of shoes, since there are over 20,000 people who go to school at UCLA," said Allen. "I thought that was do-able, but I have raised my goal to 2,000 pairs. They can be sneakers or flats or heels. As long as they're in decent shape, we will take them. There will be a drop-off spot in Ackerman and at Jackie Robinson Stadium. I'll even pick up from someone's dorm or apartment if they contact me."
"It's so simple to pair us with athletics, because athletes do have so many shoes left over," said Graben. "Especially track athletes and marathon runners. Their shoes are still in really good condition, but they have already run 400-500 miles on them and the shoes are no longer good for them. But they're really good for anyone else who takes them on."
Soles4Souls has ongoing relationships with several Division I athletic conferences, including the West Coast Conference, which has collected shoes at all of its home basketball games for three years, and the Southeastern Conference, which is currently involved in a competitive-style shoe drive throughout the conference.
Graben hopes that more schools will join the Soles4Souls campaign as more students like Allen become involved.
"When you're going out and trying to collect donors and people to support your cause, the earlier in life you can collect them as a donor for you, the longer in their life they are going to continue donating," said Graben. "Our largest demographic is housewives and mothers from 28-45, but we wanted to grow that donor base. We came up with the college campus program where college students who realize their social responsibility can have a simple, easy way to create a college chapter and collect shoes and get them to one of our warehouses."
Allen's college chapter is based at UCLA, but the web of friends for the Cerritos native spans many Southern California campuses.
"I have friends who go to Long Beach State, Cal State Northridge and Loyola Marymount, and since their schools don't have chapters, I'm helping them begin their own," said Allen. "This is starting off with UCLA, but I want them to see it as the whole city of Los Angeles. You don't have to be a UCLA Bruin in order to participate in this."
Graben hopes that Soles4Souls can continue to grow from "word of mouth" types of communication.
"We try to provide the college chapters with plenty of ideas to do something more than just purchase a pair of shoes," said Graben. "We have a program that fits everyone from 70 years old to five years old. It's the same emotional experience once they clean out their closets. We encourage everyone to go to giveshoes.org and see how they can join in and help out this cause."
Bruin baseball fans will start hearing about the Soles4Souls drive at games beginning with UCLA's home series against Oregon this weekend. Allen will be in uniform in the Bruin dugout, balancing his academic and athletic responsibilities with his new-found passion for Soles4Souls.
Fans are encouraged to bring their previously-worn pairs of shoes to Jackie Robinson Stadium, where they can drop off the shoes at the marketing table (located on first-base side of concourse).
"I just have to stay away from idle time," said Allen of balancing all of his responsibilities. "I have to be doing something for my sport or my academics or Soles4Souls, but it's so exciting that it doesn't feel like a chore. I love every single thing that I do. I love playing baseball. I love going to UCLA. I'm so excited about it that I also want to work on the Soles4Souls campaign because it's going to help so many people.
"I buy so many pairs of sneakers," said Allen. "I wanted to see one way that I could actually give back. I feel like I'm pretty fortunate, and there are a lot of unfortunate people around us, but sometimes we don't see that. There are kids in other countries that can't go to school because they don't have shoes and the school won't allow them to come inside without shoes on."