Far-Reaching Footwear

September 2018 View more

Photography by Bari Baskin // Time Stops Photography

Some travel to see the difference in other cultures, but Rich Rosenberg travels to make a difference. Ten years ago, the Elmhurst resident visited a school in Africa, and saw something that touched his heart: children without shoes. Inspired, he founded Soles for Africa, a nonprofit that collects used shoes for children in need. Thanks to his tireless efforts, the organization—now known as Soles for Kids—delivers thousands of shoes to children around the world, free of charge.

A Sole Mission

Inspiration came while Rosenberg and his wife observed Tanzanian school children without shoes. He asked the superintendent if they were barefoot by choice, or because of economics. He was determined to help after learning their plight: “Some children could only afford one pair of shoes per year and saved them for special occasions. Others only wore shoes when required in class, carrying them to and from school so they wouldn’t wear out,” he says. Walking barefoot on the excrement-covered rural roads made the students highly susceptible to cuts, illnesses, and life-threatening diseases. Shoes could not only protect their feet, but also keep the children healthy so they could continue their studies.

Rosenberg also learned that donations of brand new shoes would require the school to pay duty on the goods, which it couldn’t afford. But, because gently worn shoes have no commercial value, they could enter the country without tariffs. “We realized we could get used shoes on these children’s feet and do it for next to nothing,” he explains. When he returned home, he began asking local churches and schools to hold shoe drives. “We didn’t want money, just whatever shoes people outgrew or didn’t want anymore. We started collecting hundreds and hundreds of shoes,” he recalls.

Once the shoes were collected and sorted, Rosenberg encountered an unexpected obstacle: corruption. “Initially, we had a terrible time getting the shoes to Africa. Port inspectors would open the boxes and steal them. Only about half the shoes we sent would get to the children.” Eventually he found a partner at a school in Tanzania. Now when desks, lockers, food and other supplies are shipped to the school, Rosenberg adds thousands of shoes to the container. “We take the shoes and hide them in drawers and other nooks and crannies. That way, when the containers are opened, no one sees them and they arrive safely,” he explains.

Photo courtesy Soles for Kids

Taking it a step further

Years later, while visiting a Native American reservation, Rosenberg witnessed another population of children without proper footwear and instantly wanted to help. Working from experience, he found a local church near the reservation and began collecting shoes and boots for the parishioners. In order to keep costs down, Rosenberg and his team personally drive the shoes to the South Dakota reservation several times per year. Recently, Soles for Kids also began providing shoes to immigrant children in Chicago. “Those are our three dominant areas right now: Africa, the Sioux reservation, and Chicago. Since we started, we’ve shipped over 40,000 pairs of shoes to these locations and all over the world.”

Soles for Kids doesn’t accept monetary donations, only used shoes—the organization has no paid staff and is run entirely by volunteers. All types of shoes and boots (except for women’s dress shoes and cleats with steel spikes), plus used soccer balls and basketballs, can be dropped off at Elmhurst Photo Boutique, a company Rosenberg’s daughter owns. For more information, visit solesforkids.org.