A soldier is wandering the streets of a town homeless. His clothes are in tatters and he is wearing flip-flops. He hasn’t had a shower in a long time. He walks into a Veterans Administration homeless facility looking for help and a fresh start. They welcome him in and offer him a place to sleep, a shower and some clean clothes.
When he is all cleaned up, he has to put on his flip-flops because he has no shoes. If he can get some proper footwear, most probably he can go out and look for a job. With the VA’s help, he just might turn his life around. It isn’t essential to know why he is homeless, for in this story he is, and that is all that matters. He is not alone, for in the two southwest Florida VA hospitals in Bay Pines and Tampa, there are 150 beds for homeless veterans.
During a visit to these two hospitals, we heard about the need for shoes for homeless vets. We decided to try and do something about this lack. We didn’t waste time trying to set up a nonprofit foundation and getting a Tax ID number. We just went to work to see what we could do for our vets.
We needed to have drop-off places, so we went to several churches, a golf course, a local general store, and a military museum. All agreed to participate. Next, we needed to get the story out to the people. With church bulletins and the two local print newspapers, as well as one on-line paper, they all agreed to support the program. We had our publicity.
The goal, which no one knew was even possible, was to collect 150 pairs of new shoes in just four weeks. Drop-off containers were set up on the first day and the newspapers had their first story later that week. At the end of the first week, the cardboard boxes and barrels had gathered 25 pairs of shoes. By the end of the second week, things picked up and the count had grown to 75 pairs of shoes. At that point we realized that the vets would need socks to go with the new shoes. The need was expanded to include both work socks and dress socks.
The request was for sneakers, dress shoes, or work boots so that a vet would look presentable in applying for a job. The third week came and the first shipment of shoes and socks went to the two hospitals. We had 162 pairs of shoes and 100 pairs of socks. The project exceeded its goal in just three weeks, but we still had one week to go. People working on the project wondered if it was possible to get to 200 pairs of shoes.
On the last day of the drive in the fourth week, we collected an additional 130 pairs of shoes and 395 pairs of socks from the drop-off centers. The second truckload of shoes and socks left to bring the new shoes to the vets in time for Christmas. At the conclusion, the program delivered 292 pairs of shoes and almost 500 pairs of socks.
Why was it so successful? People understood the simple need of the vets and wanted to help; they weren’t looking for a tax deduction; they wanted to give a veteran a leg up and help to change his or her life. No awards were given either, and it was just the satisfaction of knowing that during the Christmas season, people came together.
News of the project and it success spread throughout organizations that support veterans in southwest Florida. Already there are discussions among veteran support groups about not waiting until next Christmas to start their own shoe projects; they want to start after the first of the year.
All of the many anonymous donors will have a happier Christmas, knowing they helped someone in need. You see, they gave shoes and socks that told the veterans that people cared about them. Those who gave and those who received may never meet, but each knows something special happened this Christmas.