Every morning before they leave for school, I say to my young daughters, “Girls, it’s time to get your shoes on.” They run carefreely into the mudroom and decide whether to wear high-top tennis shoes, running sneakers or boots.

It’s a simple act and part of our everyday lives. But for those less fortunate, putting on shoes may not be part of their daily routine.

Now, more than 400 underprivileged area residents are no longer walking around barefoot, thanks to Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh community and its partnership with It’s From The Sole, a New York-based national nonprofit that collects, refurbishes and provides shoes to the homeless around the world.

“Going to [the local shelters and resource centers of] Paul’s Place and Helping Up Mission is one of the most meaningful things BT Cares has ever done,” says Lindsay Gaister, director of the BT Cares Social Action group at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community Day School. “It was an overwhelming feeling to be able to help those less fortunate by providing them with brand new or gently used shoes, and watching their faces light up as they received that kind of gift.”

As part of the partnership, a shoe store was set up at Paul’s Place and Helping up Mission for those receiving and trying on the donated shoes. The shop was operated by Andre McDonnell, founder of It’s From The Sole, with a handful of Beth Tfiloh students and Anthony Savage, director of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods.

“This partnership was so heartfelt and spoke to so many people, which is why we had such high participation,” says Gaister. “To see Andre do this on a global scale and make such a difference is an inspiration. I couldn’t be more proud of everyone coming together and helping us reach our goal of 500 pairs of shoes.”

Andre McDonnell, founder of It’s From The Sole, met up with Beth Tfiloh students at the recent Weiner Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Steve Ruark)
Andre McDonnell, founder of It’s From The Sole, met up with Beth Tfiloh students at the Weiner Basketball Tournament. (Photo by Steve Ruark)

The shoe drive and McDonnell’s visit coincided with the 33rd annual Weiner Basketball Tournament held from Dec. 4-7 at Beth Tfiloh. Students from basketball teams across the country and Israel brought sneakers to donate.

“We thought it would be amazing to include the athletes because they can relate to the importance of having a good pair of sneakers,” Gaister says. “This tournament and this drive are so important to us, and we thought it would be amazing to bring the two together and make a difference.”

A Perfect Pair

The collaboration between Beth Tfiloh and It’s From The Sole was nearly a year in the making. During last year’s winter break, Tamir Krief, a Beth Tfiloh student, and his family were visiting an Adidas store in New York City, where McDonnell worked. The family was speaking in Hebrew; Krief’s mother is a Hebrew teacher at Beth Tfiloh.

“I heard they were speaking Hebrew and told them I was getting ready to head to Israel to bring 500 pairs of sneakers to at-risk youth,” McDonnell says. “We exchanged social media information and became friends. What we didn’t know at the time was Whitney Fishman Zember, an It’s From The Sole board member, is a Beth Tfiloh graduate.”

Zember says she was proud to have her high school alma mater become involved with the nonprofit.

“We have an obligation to give back and leave the world a better place,” Zember says. “Beth Tfiloh has been incredibly supportive of us, and it’s amazing that the Krief family could help bring this organization to the school’s attention.”

After the initial meeting with McDonnell, Krief and his mother felt that putting on a sneaker drive would be a great way to get school-age children excited about giving back to their communities.

“Most guys have a thing for sneakers, and I am one of those guys,” says Krief, 18, who serves as head of the It’s From The Sole shoe drive committee. “I’ve always been very aware of shoes, so this felt close to home for me.”

Sole of the Matter

McDonnell founded It’s From The Sole seven years ago after noticing a barefoot homeless man in New York. At the time, McDonnell was playing basketball with a group of guys. He was wearing a pair of sneakers given to him as a birthday present by NBA star Malik Allen, who was then a client.

“I walked over to the man and asked what size shoes he wore,” McDonnell recalls. “The man told me he hadn’t owned a good pair of shoes in so long that he didn’t remember, but thought he wore a size 10. My shoes were a size 12 and they fit him, meaning his feet were so swollen they were two sizes bigger than he thought. I took my sneakers off and gave them to him.”

McDonnell says that experience “changed him.” He began packing up suitcases full of shoes, walking around New York City and handing them out to those less fortunate.

“I started giving away all my Jordans, my LeBrons, my Kanyes, any sneakers I wasn’t wearing anymore. It made my soul feel good,” says McDonnell. “I started using the sneaker culture to help those less fortunate by providing them comfort.”

Since its creation, It’s From The Sole has donated more than 30,000 sneakers to people in 14 countries.

“I haven’t always been this generous guy,” McDonnell says. “I used to be spoiled in fashion, but this one experience in 2012 made me realize life is bigger than me.”

Following McDonnell’s recent presentation at Beth Tfiloh, a handful of the school’s athletes approached him, shook his hand and thanked him for his work.

“If I can make an impact on just one kid, my job is done,” McDonnell says. “What I am doing, along with BT, is showing these kids how to give back to the community. If we don’t teach them how to give back at a young age, when they get older they may not do anything for others. Working alongside BT has been a special community partnership.”

For information, visit https://www.itsfromthesole.org/.

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