Three years ago, the Gotta Have Sole Foundation started as a dream. Then only 12 years old, Cranston resident Nicholas Lowinger was worried about homelessness and poverty in America. He wanted to help.
And helped he has. Now 15, founder and CEO Lowinger has given new shoes to more than 7,400 young people in 14 states across the country. His dream a reality, he is making a name for himself in the non-profit world here and abroad, being chosen as one of 30 Global Teen Leaders of the We Are Family Foundation’s Three Dot Dash initiative.
“I don’t expect to be recognized and I’m not doing this work to be recognized, but it’s definitely nice,” says Lowinger. “I don’t take it for granted. It makes me feel good.”
The Global Teen Leaders conference will take place over Lowinger’s spring break in March. He will travel to New York and spend a week sharing ideas with other young service leaders. The days are long – from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. – but the rewards are tangible. Lowinger is looking forward to seeing how other service-minded individuals run their non-profits or programs.
Participants are given a small stipend for their causes and also receive a mentor with experience in charitable work. Those mentors will stay with Lowinger and his Three Dot Dash peers for a full year in an advisory role.
Although Lowinger will know only one other person there, and his parents cannot attend the summit with him, he says he is confident that the teen leaders will have much in common. His mother agrees, noting that when young people are that focused on giving back, they are bound to get along.
“They speak the same language,” Lori Shulkin Lowinger said.
Having a mentor is nothing new for Lowinger. As a Jefferson Award winner and Globe Changers recipient, he was able to meet Sam Beard, the chairman of the National Development Council and co-founder of the Jefferson Awards. Beard issued a challenge to Lowinger, pushing him to expand to five states in one year. In August of 2011, he upped the ante – urging Lowinger to get into 10 states with 5,000 shoes distributed, a challenge he has since surpassed.
Gotta Have Sole is in 14 states, and continues to expand. The first year, Lowinger distributed 400 pairs of shoes. To date, that number has grown to more than 7,800 pairs.
“The reach is incredible,” Shulkin Lowinger said.
By next year, they hope to be in 24 states.
At least for now, Gotta Have Sole will remain in the United States. Lowinger is proud of how far they have come but recognizes that the need will always be there.
“A lot of people think they have to go to the third world to find poverty, but you look in your backyard, a couple streets away, and it’s a completely different world,” he said. “It makes me so grateful for everything I have.”
He added that new shoes won’t fix a family’s problems, but it is a boost that at least takes one stress away.
“To be in a bad situation and maybe not have a stable life, to be living in a homeless shelter, to know that other people actually care about you, it means so much to the kids,” he said.
The way the organization works is that participating shelters notify Gotta Have Sole when young people move into their homeless shelters. They list gender and shoe size, and sometimes make a specific request, for example if a winter boot is needed.
Those orders go into Excel spreadsheets and shoes are distributed as quickly as possible. If the Lowingers do not have the right size, they can dip into their supply of monetary donations and purchase a shoe for that individual directly. Shoes come from donors – individuals, organizations like the Boston Red Sox and businesses like Blackie’s Bulldog Tavern – as well as companies that have partnered with Gotta Have Sole, from Puma to Timberland. Many of the shoes are popular brands, and are sometimes the first new pair of shoes a child has ever received.
“The kids at the shelter are so grateful to have a pair of new shoes,” Lowinger said.
More and more, Lowinger says that the families benefiting from Gotta Have Sole do not fit the stereotypes people have about homeless shelters. People assume that homeless people are unemployed and not looking for work, when often times, they are still working but unable to make ends meet. Homelessness crosses racial and ethnic lines.
“There are people in the shelters who have lost their home, but that might be all they’ve lost,” Shulkin Lowinger said.
Schools and community groups often reach out to the family to see how they can contribute, raising money for Gotta Have Sole, collecting new shoes and volunteering their time, even just to decorate shoe boxes or make cards for recipients.
The Wheeler School, where Lowinger is a student, has become increasingly supportive of their classmate’s endeavor.
“My community is becoming a lot more involved,” he said.
There is enough work to keep Lowinger busy full-time, but he doesn’t have that luxury. He is a freshman at Wheeler, and must juggle classes, homework, jazz band and tennis with running his own foundation.
“It’s pretty hard, but I do my best,” he said, estimating that non-profit work takes up 15 to 20 hours of his time each week.
It helps to have a family that is equally dedicated to the mission. Lowinger’s parents and grandparents help out, and mother Lori Shulkin Lowinger spends her days working for an unlikely boss – her son. She also gets a hand from a slew of interns that have sought out work from Gotta Have Sole, including students from area colleges like Bryant University. Interns do anything from filing to business plans, but are all expected to make at least one trip to a shelter for a delivery.
“These kids need to see what the other side of the street looks like,” Shulkin Lowinger said.
Lowinger hopes to inspire these young people and his school peers to find causes of their own.
“It’s one thing to have a good idea; it’s another to actually go forward with it,” he said. “It’s so rewarding. It’s making me feel so good about myself and what I’m doing.”
He is looking forward to the Global Teen Leaders summit, and to continued growth for Gotta Have Sole. He is currently working on a side project, Serving Love, which will provide tennis shoes to young athletes who are unable to afford them. The foundation is identifying these athletes thanks to Lowinger’s tennis couch, Mario Llano, who is already providing free tennis lessons to kids in need.
The program dovetails with Lowinger’s own interests, as well as the foundation’s annual tennis tournament.
“Wearing shoes that are way too small – how is someone going to be able to go to school or participate in sports? The same goes for shoes that are too big,” Lowinger said. “You shouldn’t have to give up a passion just because you can’t afford it.”
In the near future, Gotta Have Sole hopes to offer another program that helps military families.
It all goes back to Lowinger’s dream of helping people living in poverty – of putting smiles on kids’ faces.
“It’s hard enough for the kids in the shelters to deal with the fact that they are homeless; they shouldn’t have to go through any more pain,” he said.