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First Day Shoe Fund

EWE Spirit Grant Recipient Story:

Geoff was an extremely confident person, not in an arrogant, off-putting way, but with

contagiously positive and joyful energy. One of the ways he expressed this self-confidence was

by sporting his trademark collection of colorful Vans® shoes. That’s why we think he’d be

especially supportive of EWE Spirit Foundation’s recent $10,000 grant to First Day Shoe Fund.

First Day Shoe Fund was the brainchild of Valerie Denghel, a volunteer worker in the

Kalamazoo, Michigan, public schools who noticed in 2004 that many students’ shoes were worn out or the incorrect size. She began donating new shoes to kids and, two years later, created First Day Shoe Fund to do the same on a larger scale. Since then, the nonprofit has distributed more than 50,000 pairs of shoes to 47 elementary schools in Kalamazoo County.

First Day Shoe Fund’s mission is to give athletic shoes to every child in need, so that all children start school on equal footing. The organization believes that new shoes foster children’s self- esteem, thereby improving their school performance. The shoes also help kids participate in gym class, recess and other physical activities, both in and out of school, which contributes to their overall health and well-being. (Before receiving shoes from the program, children in some schools were barred from PE class because of their inappropriate footwear, such as flip-flops, jelly shoes, etc.)

At the beginning of each school year, parents fill out forms distributed by school coordinators

or online to request shoes for their children. On the forms, they select shoe size, preferred

color scheme (bright or traditional) and their child’s preference for Velcro or laces. In the week

leading up to the county-wide annual distribution event, approximately 80 volunteers assist the

First Day Shoe Fund staff in matching a pair of shoes to each applicant. Then a local moving

company delivers the shoes from the organization’s warehouse to the schools. About 200

volunteers donate some 500 hours over the span of just 10 days to distribute the shoes in the

schools’ designated “fitting rooms.”

At this fall’s event, the nonprofit distributed more than 4,700 pairs of shoes, up 17% from last

year. Earlier in 2022, it donated an additional 1,000 pairs of shoes through other organizations and agencies such as Girls on the Run (a nonprofit dedicated to promoting self-confidence in young girls through running programs) and coordinators for unhoused people and the county’s large refugee population.

Ensuring that each pair of shoes fits properly is a critical part of the program, says the executive director, Maggie Hesketh. “We’ve seen kids in shoes two sizes too small or three or more sizes too big. Families do the best they can with hand-me-downs and shopping at consignment stores.” Each child receives a new pair of socks, donated by Bombas®, which helps with the fitting process. Staff and volunteers bring hundreds of extra shoes to the distribution events, so they can exchange them for ones that don’t fit correctly, in either size or style. “Shoes are a massive cultural thing right now,” explains Maggie. “Kids don’t just need shoes—they need shoes they like.”

The organization’s impact is immediately obvious, she adds. “Seeing children’s faces light up

when they see their new shoes is an amazing feeling.” Many of these kids have never had new shoes before, she says. “They’ll ask us, ‘Are these for me? Can I keep them?’ The shoes make them feel important and show them that someone cared enough to do something nice for


Teachers tell Maggie that the shoes make a real difference in their classrooms, too. One told

her, “The students radiate excitement and confidence when they wear them to school the next

day.” Adding that she and her colleagues love the program, the teacher said, “It is tough to see so many students in need and not have a way to help. This allows the school staff to be part of the process of meeting students’ needs.”

The fall distribution event is so popular that First Day Shoe Fund is planning a similar pilot event in several schools in the spring of 2023. If that goes well, the organization aims to offer events to all of its participating schools twice yearly in the future. Maggie is in the process of trying to find a shoe manufacturer willing to partner with First Day Shoe Fund. In the meantime, she starts every morning at 6 a.m., hunting online for sales and coupons so she can restock the warehouse with affordable, quality shoes. Like the organization’s many volunteers—some of whom have been with First Day Shoe Fund since 2006—Maggie says the final results are worth all the work. “There aren’t many jobs where you get to make 5,000 kids happy.”



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