One year and one month ago, a young man entered Jim Belshaw’s store, Roy’s Shoes, Boots and Repairs, on Ellis Street in downtown Kelowna.
The man chatted with Belshaw as he searched for a pair of work boots that fit. Then, unexpectedly, he ran out of the store before purchasing the footwear.
Perhaps the thief wasn’t aware he was stealing from the man responsible for mobilizing a community—and now, a country—to give hundreds of thousands of shoes to those in need.
Perhaps he didn’t know Belshaw has taken steps to ensure those donated shoes help local people in need before being shipped to other countries worldwide.
Perhaps the young man didn’t realize that, had he asked, the owner of Roy’s Shoes would’ve made sure he left with an adequate pair of boots on his feet.
In fact, it probably would’ve made Belshaw’s day.
Six years ago, Jim Belshaw knew very little about shoes.
Prior to purchasing Roy’s Shoes in 2007, he had spent the majority of his career working in the restaurant industry.
In 2008, while trying to learn the trade and run his new business, Belshaw learned about a Nashville-based charity called Soles4Souls that was founded in 2004 by Wayne Elsey following the South Asian tsunami.
“I was literally sitting on my couch and I saw this shoe float up on the shore during the Asian tsunami,” explains Elsey in a video on his website.
“I believe God whispered to me and said: You need to do something about this.”
Since then the American charity has spread its effort to 129 countries throughout the world; as of last year it had distributed more than 19 million pairs of shoes.
Belshaw wanted to help the cause but his time was occupied with running Roy’s Shoes. He didn’t forget about Soles4Souls though—he made a mental note to start collecting shoes for donation in the summer of 2010.
But fate sped up that schedule.
Belshaw watched news coverage of the devastation caused by the Haiti earthquake in January 2010.
“The sights we saw coming out of Haiti were horrific,” says Belshaw.
“I said: I’ve got to do something now. They need something now, not in the summer.”
Belshaw received boxes and information from Soles4Souls and, with the help of his close friend and business consultant Don Robichaud, he began planning what would become the first Soles4Souls Canada shoe drive.
Belshaw thought he was aiming high when he set the initial goal of raising 5,000 pairs of donated shoes.
Robichaud convinced him to dream bigger, and the duo sent out press releases indicating they hoped to receive 25,000 shoes—12,500 pairs—in 25 days.
After just a few days had passed, Belshaw had 6,000 pairs of shoes in his store.
“I called up my buddy at Sysco and said: I need a trailer, I need somewhere to store these. He parked a trailer across the street and we just kept loading it up.”
It didn’t take long for the trailer to fill before Belshaw was forced to move the shoes into donated warehouse space. By the time the inaugural shoe drive had concluded, he had collected 45,000 pairs of donated shoes.
The community donated 65,000 the following year. To date, Soles4Souls Canada has brought in more than 300,000 pairs of shoes.
“Kelowna has always had a big heart; they’ve gotten behind so many great things in the Okanagan.
“This has really taken on legs of its own now…we’ve got drives right across Canada.”
As Belshaw explains the history of Soles4Souls Canada Tuesday at an Industrial Avenue warehouse, about 20 volunteers, including Rotarians and Telus Community Ambassadors, work tirelessly tying shoes together and sorting them into various boxes.
Volunteers will continue to meet from 10 a.m. to noon every Tuesday until the middle of May—the opportunity is open to anyone interested in the community. Next week a class of Grade six students from Kelowna Christian School is coming down to help.
With the passing of Don Robichaud earlier this year, Belshaw reached out to develop a Soles4Souls Canada committee, comprised of former mayor Sharon Shepherd, members of the Downtown Kelowna Association, Rotarians, Telus Community Ambassadors and several others.
“We’ve got a good core of people who are helping this year and it’s making it more effective.”
The Rotary Club of Kelowna Sunrise has also been an integral part of the April shoe drive’s success, adds Belshaw.
The rotary club has come up with the goal of raising one million shoes throughout the province over the next few years.
“There are 300 million children in this world with no shoes. It would be nice to make it 299 million sometime soon.”
Belshaw met some of those people in need last September.
Two teeth, visible below a thick white moustache, indicate he is smiling as he reminisces about his trip to Haiti.
“Just thinking about it gives me chills,” says Belshaw.
He and a group of Americans representing Soles4Souls gave out donated shoes at a handful of orphanages and community centres throughout the country.
“In Haiti, as with a lot of countries in Africa, kids can’t go to school if they don’t have a pair of black dress shoes.”
With this specific need in mind, the group handed out the required shoes as families eagerly lined up—at times, aggressively—trying to ensure their children would get one of the tools necessary for their education.
Belshaw uses the word “amazing” several times to describe the experience and says he plans to return to Haiti with a Canadian group this fall.
Although the international demand for shoes is obvious, Soles4Souls Canada hasn’t overlooked the needs of local social agencies.
“Unfortunately, there’s a big need here.
“Right now I’m trying to acquire some funds to rent this (warehouse) space year-round…there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t get a phone call (requesting shoes).”
Work boots, as well as other specific types of shoes, are set aside every week for local organizations that have made special requests.
“We’ve sent out an e-mail to all social agencies up and down the valley. We’ve got two dates coming up at the end of this month and the first week of May. We’re scheduling to have them come in and take whatever they need for their clients.
“They choose whatever they want, then once that’s done everything else is boxed up and heads south to the (Soles4Souls) sorting centre and gets re-sorted and prioritized.”
Ami Catriona, marketing and communications director for Kelowna’s Gospel Mission, said hundreds, if not thousands of shoes have helped out Gospel Mission clients.
“It’s absolutely invaluable to have us receive the donations,” says Catriona.
“They contact us to find out what our most pressing needs are. Usually in the spring and summer its runners or good soled outdoor shoes. In the winter it’s work boots.”
Although there tends to be higher demand for certain types of shoes, Belshaw says the charity can find a use for everything—nothing goes to waste.
The Canadian charity, which has grown significantly in its four year history, is getting an endorsement from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s wife this year.
Laureen Harper, who is a “big supporter” of Soles4Souls Canada according to Belshaw, will be in Kelowna to raise awareness for the shoe drive April 25.
Belshaw is hoping the shoe saving campaign continues to evolve not only in Kelowna, but throughout the country.
This year he is encouraging local companies to get involved with the April campaign by doing internal shoe drives.
Those interested in donating shoes—preferably in decent shape, without holes or rips—are asked to keep the pairs connected by tying the laces together or putting an elastic band around the shoes. They can be dropped off at all McDonalds Restaurant and Starbucks locations from the South Okanagan to Kamloops, Roy’s Shoes on Ellis Street or several other locations shown on the Soles4Souls Canada website.
For more information regarding the charity, volunteer opportunities and drop-off locations, or to contact Jim Belshaw, visit soles4soulscanada.com.