“It’s not about the shoes,” said Scott Sowle, founder of shoe-giving nonprofit Redeeming Soles. “It’s about showing people love, hope and care.”
At 53, Sowle spends his days sorting, cleaning, repairing and giving footwear to those in need. It’s a 40- to 60-hour weekly process that is fueled by generosity from donators and volunteers.
Upon meeting the executive director at his shoe distribution center in Downtown Seattle, Sowle showed off mountains of shoes he has collected. Footwear floods the room, but he explained that there is a method to every inch of space.
As he talked about his daily routine, he picked at the piles, finding misplaced shoes and reorganized boxes.
He is a man with so much heartfelt commitment and infectious energy, it is difficult to imagine he was once addicted to drugs and was suicidal and homeless.
Sowle’s ‘old life’
Sowle lived on the streets for 13 years, roaming many urban areas but spending most of his time at Salt Lake City, his “base camp.”
Before he was sucked into a cycle of drug use, he described himself as a “ski bum,” with little concern for his health and even less regard for his future. The possibility of homelessness was never on his radar.
“It did not really dawn on me what it would be like,” Sowle said. “Once I was there, I still never even thought about it. “
In 2009, Sowle came to Seattle to clean up and restart. However, it did not take long for him to start using again. “I couldn’t take care of myself. I was stuck in this endless circle of despair,” he said.
Until, one night underneath the Magnolia Bridge, a cold, weak and depressed Sowle finally hit a breaking point. He remembered thinking, “I cannot even get to the top of this bridge to jump.”
Ready to make a change, Sowle went to the Seattle Union Gospel Mission on Dec. 23, 2010, a date he recalled without a hint of hesitation. There, he discovered something that would renew his life: spirituality.
“It was the first time I realized that people care, that my life is in God’s hands,” Sowle said.
With support from the church, Sowle stayed sober and started working on various web-design projects. He wanted to show others who are homeless that they are not alone.
Sowle not only relates to the feeling of physical and mental exhaustion, but he also understands the circumstances that often lead to this state of desperation.
“Most people out there on the streets have lived in broken homes with broken families. They’re told they’re not loved,” he explained.
After a long pause, he added, “I just want to show them that they are.”
Giving needed help
According to Sowle, sometimes the most basic help is the most forgotten and powerful. This philosophy inspired the shoe-giving movement.
He explained that many shelters offer food, blankets and clothing but rarely any footwear. “It’s strange because we’re on our feet all day. A homeless person goes through shoes a lot faster than average because they don’t rotate them,” Sowle said.
With a bike trailer and a sign, Sowle stood in front of the Columbia Center in Downtown Seattle and asked for used footwear. He came up empty-handed the first week.
After a few months of persistence, the shoe donations soared. Trunk-loads of shoes were being dropped off and suddenly Sowle needed a place to store them.
Christy O’Shaughnessy, whom Sowle called “the super volunteer,” said that media coverage introduced her to the project, but Sowle’s genuine personality keeps her involved.
“I read an article in a restaurant and actually said aloud, ‘I can help this guy,’” she said. “Now, I always have tons of boxes of shoes in my garage.”
While Sowle said he always knew he could relieve the need for shoes, he soon realized he could make a bigger impact if he had more resources.
In 2011, with the name Redeeming Soles (Helping Soles was taken the day before, he said), Sowle made some phone calls to discuss the process of starting a nonprofit.
He reached out to Matthew Hopper, an attorney at the Foster Pepper law firm, and nearly 50 days later, Redeeming Soles was a recognized nonprofit receiving tax-exemption services.
“That’s when it became less of a dream and more real,” Sowle said.
In two years, Redeeming Soles has provided more than 50,000 people with footwear. Sowle said blessings from God are the force lifting Redeeming Soles to where it is today.
Despite his spiritual devotion, Sowle asserted that it is not a faith-based organization. “It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you want to give, we’re here,” he said.
Redeeming Soles is run by volunteers from various backgrounds and operates out of a space donated by Paul Allen. It has has nine drop-off locations across the Puget Sound region and hosts shoe drives throughout the year.
Sowle particularly credited the sports-gear company Brooks for donating thousands of shoes over the last two years. The company even started to give clothing.
On average, Redeeming Soles gives organizations that serve the homeless and the underprivileged 800 shoes every week. As Sowle provided more shoes, he noticed a related need for socks.
Recently, Sowle partnered with the Machinists Union District Lodge 751 to host a sock drive that will last until the end of March.
Bryan Corliss, a Machinists Union communications representative, said that, after meeting Sowle at a community-resource exchange, his group was inspired to get involved.
“Until someone smarter than us figures out a solution to end homelessness, let’s keep them warm,” Corliss said. “We need to take care of the people right in front of us.”
Sowle said that these acts of unconditional kindness are the blood of Redeeming Soles: “Caring people make this type of work possible.”
Shoes continue to pour in, yet Sowle explained that Redeeming Soles needs more than footwear: It needs money.
Costs of cleaning supplies, fliers, storage containers and distribution make it a constant challenge to “stay afloat,” he said.
Another pressing need is for a new donated space. Its current spot will become a 12-story office building in October.
“I don’t want to see this disappear,” Sowle earnestly expressed. “We need leaders.”
Despite uncertain funding, Sowle is in the process of expanding shoe-giving from the Puget Sound region to Tacoma and Everett. Also, he is designing a model to help local communities across the world support the needy in their own backyards.
“Domestic help is a niche being missed,” he said.
Ultimately, Sowle wants to show people that they can make a meaningful difference from any starting point.
“It’s been tough for me,” he said. “I’m still technically without my own home.”
Today, Sowle resides with friends in the Seattle area.
“But you keep going,” he said.
Brian Chandler, the assistant director at the Seattle Union Gospel Mission men’s shelter, said, “He is a leading example for the younger guys. His heart and passion makes him not someone who gives but someone who cares.”
Sowle’s story has received wide coverage in the media. He has been featured on The Huffington Post, The Seattle Times, the Hallmark Channel, KOMO and KIRO news channels and a variety of blogs and radio stations. In fact, Sowle recently finishing a six-hour shoot for “The 700 Club,” on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
However, Sowle has no plans to chase the spotlight in Hollywood.
He said with certainty, “My future is right here.”
To learn more about Redeeming Soles, go to redeemingsoles.org. It will have its first Volunteer Day event on March 9.
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