Sawyer Howard, a 12-year-old boy from Morganville, collects shoes — lots of shoes! In just two weeks late this summer, the seventh-grader gathered over 1,000 pairs for those in need — an effort, he said, that made him “happy to be able to make life better for people less fortunate than I am.”
Sawyer collected, sorted, bagged, and packaged this mountain of footwear, culled mainly from the closets of local residents, and, with help from his parents, Susie and Lance Howard, sent them on to Soles4Souls Inc. to be distributed to people in need. The recipients of the new or “gently worn” shoes are either victims of natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes or people struggling to overcome poverty.
Sawyer’s campaign was the mitzva project he undertook to mark his Oct. 5, 2013, bar mitzva at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan.
The beneficiaries of Sawyer’s efforts may be anywhere on the globe, including the United States. Soles4Souls, headquartered in Old Hickory, Tenn., is the nonprofit corporation that handles the distribution of the shoes.
The organization originated in 2004 in response to the cataclysmic tsunami in eastern Asia. Three friends — one of whom worked in the footwear industry — recognized that shoes were needed to help prevent further injury and disease to the survivors. The group collected more than 250,000 pairs of shoes.
A year later, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the founders realized that disasters may strike at any time and in any place. So they turned Soles4Souls into an ongoing operation, which now also has two other divisions, Clothes4Souls and Hope4Souls. Overall, the organization has given out more than 19 million pairs of shoes since 2005. There are numerous drop-off points throughout the country, including one in Woodbridge, which is where Sawyer’s family delivered their haul.
Sawyer, one of the youngest donors, had set as his goal 1,000 pairs of shoes over a 12-month period that was scheduled to end in August 2013. Instead, he surpassed that level in just two weeks. His instant success led Soles4Souls to feature him as a “Rockstar Donor” on its blog (blog.soles4souls.org/2012/09/rockstar-donor-sawyer-howard/).
The organization urged Sawyer to continue working on the project throughout the yearlong period leading to his bar mitzva, and he readily agreed. In a release, Soles4Souls said that “partners like Sawyer” are part of “a force of change” in the global community.
In an interview, the youngster told New Jersey Jewish News, “It feels great to know you’re helping a whole village by just cleaning out your closet and asking others to clean out theirs. I’m happy to be able to make life better for people who are less fortunate than I am.”
Sawyer is no stranger to shoe transfers. He and his older brother, Sam, both self-declared “sneakerheads,” developed a passion for shoes about two years ago. They began buying and selling limited-edition sneakers, using seed money their grandmother had given them as a gift. Although they offered to return her original investment, she insisted they reinvest it.
Susie Howard described her younger son as a “people pleaser with a heart of gold. He is incredibly kind.”
She expressed surprise at the speed with which Sawyer met his Soles4Souls goal. “Sawyer posted it all over Facebook,” she said. “His sister Sydney, a high school freshman, contacted the school’s ROTC program and her guidance counselor, who said he would try to present it to students in a special pre-law program. Members of the soccer and hockey teams agreed to help.”
In addition, she said, Temple Shaari Emeth members chipped in, a notice appeared on the local on-line page of The Patch, The Huffington Post picked it up, and The Asbury Park Press mentioned Sawyer’s campaign in its coverage of Marlboro Day, the Sept. 9 event celebrating the local community. Sawyer manned a booth on Marlboro Day, getting 252 additional pairs on just that day.
Shoes came from as far away as Colorado and California, where two of Sawyer’s aunts live.
Asked about his future career plans, Sawyer said, “I’d like to be a lawyer, so I can help bring justice to people.
“But if that doesn’t work out, I’d like to work for Nike.”
Anyone interested in donating to Sawyer’s continuing shoe-collecting effort should contact the Howards at Susie@ssshoward.com.