Wayne Elsey was sitting on his couch watching television footage from the Asian tsunami when he saw an image that still haunts him — a single shoe washing up on shore.
The shoe company executive called his friends in the industry the next day and asked for help collecting new and used shoes for those displaced by the massive wave that killed 230,000 people. All told, they sent about 250,000 pairs.
He collected nearly a million pairs the following year when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast.
Soon afterward, Elsey left the shoe business for good and started a charity that gives shoes to people after natural disasters, but also to the homeless and other needy people. He called it Soles4Souls.
With his group, Elsey has given away nearly 2.5 million pairs of shoes, distributed in 35 countries.
“The simplicity of what we do — we get and give shoes — people understand it,” said Elsey, 42.
Now the charity is trying to give away one million pairs of shoes in the Sudan by the end of the year. A civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions since 2003.
Soles4Souls gets its shoes from footwear companies, retailers and other groups, who donate shoes both new and used.
Many are customer returns, factory defects or excess inventory.
The footwear is inspected for quality, sorted by gender and size, packed into boxes and later distributed to charities or other groups.
Soles4Souls was running in the red by nearly $82,000 US in fiscal year 2006, but thanks in part to a $5 million grant from the trade group World Shoe Organization, it expects to be about $6.5 million in the black this year, said Kevin Goughary, chief operating officer.
“At the end of the day it feels good to me to give back something I know. And I know shoes,” Elsey said. “It feels good to give something so simple.”
- VisitSoles4Souls online at www.soles4souls.org.