Tina Fineberg  /  AP
Tanairi Masterreno, 14, left, her sister Maribel Masterreno, 11, center, and Emma Lee Jimenez, 11, take a moment to look at their new summer shoes after receiving them at the Soles4Souls World Vision Summer Shoe Giveaway in the Bronx borough of New York, on July 11, 2007.
updated 7/20/2007 4:12:24 PM ET 2007-07-20T20:12:24

Wayne Elsey was sitting on his couch watching television footage from the Asian tsunami when he saw an image that still haunts him — a single shoe washing up on shore.

The shoe company executive called his friends in the industry the next day and asked for help collecting new and used shoes for those displaced by the massive wave that killed 230,000 people. All told, they sent about 250,000 pairs.

He collected nearly a million pairs the following year when hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast.

Soon afterward, Elsey left the shoe business for good and started a charity that gives shoes to people after natural disasters, but also to the homeless and other needy people. He called it Soles4Souls.

With his group, Elsey has given away nearly 2.5 million pairs of shoes, distributed in 35 countries.

“The simplicity of what we do — we get and give shoes — people understand it,” said Elsey, 42.

Sudan is focus of current campaign
Now the charity is trying to give away 1 million pairs of shoes in the Sudan by the end of the year. A civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions since 2003.

In the United States, homeless advocates say people don’t typically donate shoes to charity or even think about how important they are to the poor and homeless.

“There is a tremendous need for shoes,” said Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“People when they donate to shelters or soup kitchens, very seldom do they donate shoes because most people don’t think of shoes when they think of homelessness. But when you think about it, they’re on their feet all day, walking around.”

Brenda Peoples and her 7-year-old granddaughter both got free shoes last month when Soles4Souls handed out Crocs — those colorful, rubbery clogs — at the girl’s school in Nashville.

“It was a blessing to a lot of parents. It was wonderful, and I truly appreciate it because I’m raising her,” Peoples said. “It allowed me to use some money for something else.”

Hobby transforms into full-time job
After the hurricanes hit, Elsey said he helped create the Web site www.katrinashoes.org, which received large donations from footwear companies, retailers, churches, ministries and civic groups.

That’s when Elsey — then president of footwear company Kodiak-Terra Inc. — realized his hobby could be a full-time job.

Soles4Souls gets its shoes from footwear companies, retailers and other groups, who donate shoes both new and used. Many are customer returns, factory defects or excess inventory.

The footwear is inspected for quality, sorted by gender and size, packed into boxes and later distributed to charities or other groups.

Soles4Souls was running in the red by nearly $82,000 in fiscal year 2006, but thanks in part to a $5 million grant from the trade group World Shoe Organization, it expects to be about $6.5 million in the black this year, said Kevin Goughary, chief operating officer.

Last year Elsey made $27,365 for working 25 hours a week, but the charity’s board has yet to determine his salary this year, expected to be between $100,000 and $200,000.

“At the end of the day it feels good to me to give back something I know. And I know shoes,” Elsey said. “It feels good to give something so simple.”

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