Liz Truesdale barely could see her desk beyond the dozens of boxes of sneakers delivered to her West Lincoln Elementary School office last week.
Eighty-nine pairs of new shoes to be exact for 89 children -- many of whom have never had new shoes before, let alone a pair that actually fit.
But she needed more. So Truesdale, a guidance counselor, placed a second order -- and Spirit of Hope Lutheran Church came through.
The shoes are part of Kicks for Kids, a 3-year-old church service project that began as a simple idea -- purchase shoes for Belmont Elementary School children in need -- recalled Heather Ladman, wife of former church council president Jason Ladman, who by virtue of her marital status ending up spearheading the project.
Today, Kicks for Kids is a mission of love, a passion that has gained more traction than a pair of Nikes on a basketball court.
This year, Spirit of Hope members and their friends donated enough cash to purchase 300 pairs of sneakers -- enough shoes to cover and clad cramped or chilly toes of children at eight elementary schools in Lincoln, Malcolm and Raymond.
A former Belmont Elementary teacher, Heather Ladman came up with the idea while brainstorming service project ideas with her husband. She remembered her former students as well as stories of her fellow teachers about kids who slogged through the snow wearing only flip-flops, or wore their Sunday best shoes that were several sizes too small.
Many low-income kids don’t have tennis shoes -- even for PE. Gently used tennis shoes for kids are hard to find because most kids simply wear them out, Ladman said.
“That first year we started with one school (Belmont) and hoped we would raise money to meet the need,” she said. “The money just kept coming in. Every pair requested we have been able to fulfill,” Ladman said. Spirit of Hope members have been tremendously generous."
Last year, the church donated enough money to buy more than 250 pairs of shoes to five Lincoln elementary schools -- Belmont, Kooser, Campbell, West Lincoln and Fredstrom.
This year, they added Malcolm and Raymond Central schools to the list, and when donations far exceeded expectations, thanks to Facebook friends and email appeals, Spirit of Hope offered shoes to Arnold Elementary School.
Spirit of Hope selected schools in neighborhoods where its church members lived.
“We wanted to impact our own neighborhoods,” Ladman said.
Creativity has turned this project into a fun event. On “Sock Sunday” people wore only socks to church. Youngsters in each of the Sunday School classes were invited to decorate a pair of plain white canvas shoes. Those shoes were then put on display, with church members stuffing money into their favorite pairs. They raised $172, Ladman said.
Most of the shoes were bought through Lincoln’s Payless ShoeSource stores on 27th and Superior streets and O Street -- the store manager at 27th and Superior jumped on board and offered bulk discounts and special deals.
Kicks for Kids looks for quality shoes, ones that will hold up through the wear and tear of a school year. They also make a great effort to find a variety of shoes, making sure shoes don’t all look the same and stand out as “donated.”
“Nobody needs to know,” Ladman said.
They also work to fit the needs of each child, buying high tops for the kid who needs his shoes for basketball as well as day-to day-activities, and shoes for preschool-age siblings who are too young for school, but are still in need.
“If I get one kid in a family, I include the whole family,” Truesdale said. “It is amazing how many kids literally only have one pair of shoes. When they get wet, they don’t get time to dry, and they wear out really, really fast.”
Since this is her school’s second year in the program, Truesdale has got the shoe program down to a science. She asks teachers to nominate kids who complain that their feet hurt, or that wear the same shoes day after day no matter what the weather.
Then Truesdale invites the kids to her office, where she measures their feet and jots down the size and gender of the recipient.
When shoes arrive, she again calls the students to her office one at a time, giving them their shoes and having them sit at her table to write a thank you note.
“I had one little girl who just cannot get used to the idea of having room in her shoes,” Truesdale said, adding that it took the girl a long time to realize her toes shouldn’t feel squished.
Jenny Piening, director of student services at Malcolm Schools, ordered 12 pairs for students this year. She hand-delivered four pair to one family and was moved by the gratitude.
“One little girl put on her new shoes and smiled," Piening recalled. "She said 'Now I don’t have to wear those tight black ones anymore.'”