09/13/2012 05:28 EDT | Updated 11/13/2012 05:12 EST

Make a Difference With a Pair of Shoes

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A homeless man protects himself from the rain on a bench near the White House in Washington on May 14, 2012. There were an estimated 12,000 homeless people living in the Washington area, according to the 2011 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ annual survey of the homeless. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

As a kid, I always secretly felt guilty when my mother bought me new shoes. I was the oldest child to a single mom in a low-income family. I would get new shoes every fall for the beginning of a new school year. My mom would scrimp and save so I could have running shoes that I would only ever use in gym class. Until recently, I foolishly thought those pangs of guilt were because I was somehow "fiscally responsible" growing up.

Today, I work as a warehouse facilitator, stewarding donations for The Mustard Seed, a non-profit organization that addresses the root causes of poverty by providing basic needs, housing and employment programs to those in need. I accept shoes from donors all the time, but when it comes down to it, I can't even remember where all my gym shoes went.

You probably have no idea where yours went, or your kids' for that matter. Allow me to solve part of the mystery. For the last few summers, Lois, a donor to The Mustard Seed has contributed by going to her kids' high school and collecting the entire lost and found. She sorts it all and launders every piece of clothing.

This year, Lois convinced a local business that cleans sporting equipment to join in by sanitizing all of the shoes. Hundreds of pairs of shoes came to us just like new. And, now your kids' gym shoes could be out walking the streets of Edmonton on the feet of the homeless.

I've come to realize while living and working in Edmonton's inner city that good shoes are priceless. On more than one occasion someone has arrived at our doors, desperate and in bare feet.

One woman had been sleeping in the doorway of another agency and took her shoes off. When she woke up she found that someone had taken them. She kept repeating, "I never should have taken them off."

One winter, a man came to us having just been released from the Edmonton Remand Centre. Unable to pay a small fine, possibly for riding public transit without a ticket or jaywalking, he served time behind bars instead -- a surprisingly common occurrence among the homeless. He was released quite suddenly, before his personal belongings had been processed to be returned. So, he walked through deep snow with only socks on his feet to The Mustard Seed.

Never mind the more extreme stories. Most homeless and poverty-stricken people I know walk everywhere. And the only shoes they have access to are "gently used" donations from inner-city agencies like The Mustard Seed. My homeless friends have shoes with soles that are so completely worn through that if it rains their feet are soaked. It's truly miserable, but it doesn't have to be this way.

Here are a few real, simple ways that you can do something great:

  • Team up with a local school just like Lois has done. Most shoes used exclusively for gym class are barely worn out by the end of the school year, and we need them.

  • Find a nearby shoe store and ask them what they do with their footwear that's been returned and written off. For many retailers the only thing keeping them from donating useful items is not having someone to transport them. Be that someone.

  • Organize a clothing swap among your friends, school, workplace, church, or community league. You'll get rid of garments you don't need and gain some new ones. Then you can collect all the leftover items and give them to your local charity. Everybody wins.

  • Lastly, the easiest way to help somebody out with shoes or clothing is to give yours away before they're worn out. Everybody has their favourite pair of shoes, even my homeless friends. Consider moving onto your new favuorite pair before the previous ones have totally died.

In one way or another, we're all in this together. Let's at least take care of each other's feet.