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When something as simple as shoes stop students from going to school, they step in

by Amanda Hollingworth
April 25, 2018
Representatives from CoastHills Credit Union present a $500 check to the co-founder and president of Shoes For Students.
Shoes for Students co-founder Kate Ferguson and Board of Directors president Maggie White receive a $500 donation from CoastHills Credit Union Community Action Committee member Andrea Hoffman and CoastHills Community Relations Officer Amanda Hollingworth. — Joshua D. Scroggin

For some kids, finding motivation to get off to school in the morning is a real chore. But for at least one little boy in Santa Maria, it was the complete opposite.

The only thing holding back his excitement for class was something most people take for granted — a pair of shoes to wear.

He wanted to go to school so badly that after his parents left for work, he tore the house apart looking for footwear.

He was in luck, there was one pair left in the house.

He eventually shuffled into the classroom, wearing adult men’s shoes that swallowed up his feet. Shocked at the spectacle, his teacher took him aside and called his house.

She learned two heartbreaking things: First, the reason the boy rarely came to school was because the family didn’t have any shoes for him to wear. Second, he was wearing his uncle’s work shoes, and without them, his uncle couldn’t earn money that day to help support the family.

A misconception about kids who miss school is that families are choosing not to educate their children, but often times, it’s poverty rather than apathy for learning that gets in the way. There are children who can’t go to school because they lack shoes, and in some cases, essential clothing like shirts, pants, or jackets.

“These are not kids who don’t have cute clothes to wear to school,” said Kate Ferguson, the founder of Shoes for Students. “These are kids who don’t have clothes to wear to school.”

It never occurred to Kate that something as seemingly simple as access to shoes could be a barrier to education. She first learned about this issue after her mom shared an article with her. She then spoke with some clients of hers, local teachers, who confirmed it was true — many of their students were sporting shoes that were falling apart, often the wrong size, and worn to the point of causing pain or preventing participation in activities. And then there were the students who didn’t have any shoes, whose parents had no choice but to keep them home.

Inspired to make a difference, Kate co-founded Shoes For Students in 1998 with the hopes of fixing the problem at a local school. Twenty years later, the program spans the entire valley offering support through Santa Maria-Bonita, Orcutt, Blochman, and Guadalupe school districts. Over the years, the program even expanded to assist local organizations assisting kids in need like CALM, CASA, United Way, Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Maria Valley, Good Samaritan Shelter, and Santa Barbara County Veteran’s Stand Down.

Maggie White, Public Information Officer for Santa Maria-Bonita School District, works closely with Shoes For Students. So closely that she joined the organization to pay it forward for everything they’ve done for her students. With around 17,000 students, Santa Maria-Bonita School District is the largest on the Central Coast. They also have a lot of students who need a little extra help. Around 86% come from families that live below the poverty line, and many are classified as homeless — which includes those who live in a car, hotel, homeless shelter, or in a single-family house occupied by multiple-families, like the little boy who borrowed his uncle’s work shoes.

When a school staff member, like Maggie, notices a kid who needs shoes or clothing they contact Shoes For Students. Thanks to community support, like a recent $500 donation from the CoastHills Credit Union Community Action Sponsorship program, Shoes For Students can buy bulk gift cards at Payless ShoeSource at a discount as well as gift cards from Walmart.

These gift cards go to the students & their families, who feel empowered because they get to choose their shoes of clothing items. Not only do they get something new, they get something that’s truly theirs — things that aren’t old, worn out, the wrong size, or “uncool” in some way that might make them a target for bullying. The $500 donation from CoastHills translates into 20 kids getting new shoes. For many, these shoes will be the first new thing they’ve ever owned.

Shoes For Students is committed to maintaining confidentiality and dignity so they don’t ask for the identity of their recipients, although they do confirm that funds are used appropriately through receipts. However, their recipients often seek them out to personally express their gratitude. Their thanks goes beyond just the shoes — it’s that someone in their community truly cares about them. 

Although the majority of requests are related to income, Maggie points out that the program is there for anyone who needs it, “sometimes the requests aren’t due to poverty but due to unfortunate life-events.” Shoes For Students has come to the rescue when families are displaced by a fire or another disaster where they are unable to retrieve their belongings for a time or even lose them altogether. The organization has also lent a hand for those getting back on their feet after leaving an abusive situation, or even when a family is impacted by loss of income due to illness.

The organization receives glowing reviews from school staff who are thrilled that there is a support network that allows them to react quickly to ensure that their students get what they need. They couldn’t do it without Shoes For Students, and Shoes For Students couldn’t do it without community support. Those interested in making a donation or volunteering for their annual golf tournament fundraiser in September can contact Kate or Maggie at shoes4students@gmail.com.
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