Teen CNN Heroes Nominee Nicholas Lowinger Expands Gotta Have Sole

By Jordan Adler 11/21/13 | www.samaritanmag.com

15-year-old Nicholas Lowinger (left) started Gotta Have Sole, which has given new shoes to more than 11,000 homeless kids.
When Rhode Island teen Nicholas Lowinger first visited a homeless shelter as a child of five, he noticed how few of the kids had shoes that fit well or even had shoes at all.  Now 15, the 2013 CNN Heroes recipient is the CEO of non-profit organization Gotta Have Sole, which donates new shoes to more than 11,000 youths in homeless shelters across 26 states and counting. 

“I was really shocked because I’m playing with kids who were my age who were just like me. But the one thing that made us sort of different was the footwear we had,” Lowinger tells Samaritanmag.

“A lot of these kids couldn’t go to school every day because they might not have sneakers that fit them. They might have shoes that were falling apart, that were too big or too small. Some didn’t have anything. They couldn’t go to school every day and get a proper education. They couldn’t be with their friends, play sports, and really be kids.”

Lowinger’s says that his mother took him to the shelter to make him realize how other people were living so that he could appreciate what he had. After his first visit, he decided to donate shoes to the homeless shelters, as well as some used clothing. However, he says that the shoes he gave were already worn in.

“I realized it may not be very comfortable for them,” he says. “I know it always feels much better getting a brand-new pair of shoes to call my own, especially being a kid and a teenager.”

Gotta Have Sole sprung from his Bar Mitzvah project, at age 13, a recent requirement of many synagogues and families that ask bar/bat mitzvah candidates to do "tzedakah (social action) projects" as part of their preparations.

When his parents saw his devotion and passion to this project, they recommended that Lowinger keep it going as a non-profit company.

“What I’m doing is not just giving a new pair of shoes to kids,” Lowinger says. “It’s a lot more than that. It’s really making peace in the world because I’m promoting equality for these children. I’m giving them more opportunities in life. A lot of these kids get bullied for the situation they’re in, and sadly, also for the footwear they’re wearing. If I’m able to stop that with at least one child, I know that I’ve done my job.”

During the first year running Gotta Have Sole, Lowing donated shoes to around 450 children in Rhode Island and a few surrounding states. For a 13-year-old to be at the helm of a non-profit company was a huge learning curve for Lowinger. He had to speak in front of boards of directors of companies to get them to donate shoes, as well as to schools asking people to donate and volunteer. He started to raise awareness for his organization by putting on a benefit jazz concert and shoe drive at his school in Cranston, RI.

Lowinger stores donated footwear in his garage.
Lowinger wrote to shoe companies like Ed Hardy, Timberland and Zappos to support his cause. The Boston Red Sox even donated New Balance shoes. By the second year, he was already getting enough donations to send footwear to about 1100 children. Gotta Have Sole has grown ten-fold in its donation capacity since and reaches around 11,000 underprivileged youths today, according to Lowinger.

Lowinger says it is important that the shoes are of a high quality. “There’s this stigma about homelessness. A lot of people are under this mindset that is really terrible – that just because somebody is homeless, they’ll be accepting of anything and that they don’t deserve the same quality as any other human being.”

To get more volunteers to help out with his organization, Lowinger travels to other schools and makes presentations to classes. (if his own schooling gets in the way, his mother speaks on his behalf.) During these visits, Lowinger often does a shoe swap, making the kids switch shoes with their neighbour and then walk around.

“When I ask [the students] how it feels to wear them, a lot of them say, ‘Oh, they’re too big.’ ‘They’re too small.’ ‘I would never wear these,’” he recounts. “I explain to them there’s kids in the homeless shelter that don’t have the opportunity or the luxury of choosing what they wear with regards to footwear. The kind of footwear that’s donated to the shelters is in deplorable condition. It’s shoes that I would never put on.”

Recently, he expanded Gotta Have Sole to include two offshoots. One of them, guided by Lowinger’s love for playing tennis, is called Serving Love, which raises funds to donate sporting footwear to disadvantaged children. “I know the importance of having properly fitting footwear that is safe for sports. I don’t think that someone’s economic situation should limit their passions,” he explains. The second initiative honours the work of returning veterans who are living below the poverty line. With SOLEdiers, Lowinger is donating gift cards to them so they can buy new footwear. Lowinger’s grandfather served in WWII.

The teenager works about 15 to 20 hours a week for his organization. He spends a lot of time connecting with shelters who have caught his appearances on NBC and CNN (the CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute airs Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. ET) and a greater part of his day-to-day operation is making sure that those orders get through instantly. Among his other daily duties are contacting corporations to deliver footwear for his cause and writing ‘thank-you’ letters to all of his donors. The practice of writing these letters stems from his grandfather, a distributor of stationery products. He says that this custom allows donors to feel appreciated for the work that they do. “Whether it’s $5, $1000 or more, it’s great to show how appreciative I am, because one dollar can really go a long way,” Lowinger says.

Within a day or two of getting a request from a shelter, he will go into the big stock of shoes in his family’s garage and find the sizes he needs. Members of his family and other volunteers help to fill out the order forms, which have become more plentiful as Gotta Have Sole’s reach spreads throughout the United States. Beyond sneakers, Gotta Have Sole tries to send boots in the winter and sandals and flip-flops during the summer.

Volunteers help fill the shoe requests from the homeless shelters.
At his high school, he runs a club where students can sign up to volunteer for Gotta Have Sole. When he tours around to different states, Lowinger says he hopes to spawn more clubs that can also contribute to his organizations. Student volunteers as far as Texas have made cards for homeless children that are later sent with the shoes.

“I’ll have people all around the U.S. decorating cards and writing messages of hope on these cards,” he says. “It’s showing that the kids matter and that people are willing to spend their own time when they can be doing anything else to try and make these children have a better day.”

During Lowinger’s downtime  — which isn’t a lot for a teenage CEO — he tries to be a normal high-schooler. He enjoys playing tennis, as well as the bass. He also places much importance on his education and he aspires to go to law school to become an attorney.

“[Gotta Have Sole] is taking me on a path that I wasn’t really expecting,” he says. “I didn’t think it would grow at this level after three years. I don’t know if I’ll end up still being an attorney in the future. But I always want to keep my hand in this organization. It’s a huge part of me. It’s helped to shape who I am.”

Lowinger’s mission is to keep expanding his organization. He hopes that by the time he graduates from high school in 2016, it will be in all 50 states. “A lot of people are saying I should make this a global organization,” Lowinger says about spreading to Canada and other countries. “I just have to reach my first goal that I’ve set and then move forward from that.”

Some of the homeless children that are recipients of new shoes have been so moved by Lowinger’s gesture that they want to help out and volunteer for Gotta Have Sole. “There was one boy who I donated new footwear to his family, and he was so touched, he started decorating cards for returning veterans with all his friends in the homeless shelter. He wanted a way to give back to people who had given so much for him.”

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* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.