By Kelley Carlson
On a recent Friday afternoon, a small package arrived at the Cleary household in Carmel Valley, sent from Lahaina, Hawaii.
Philip and Kimberly Cleary had an idea of what was inside. Kimberly eagerly opened the box while sitting at the kitchen table, and found three pairs of used shoes.
While it may seem to be an unusual type of item to receive in the mail, it made the Clearys smile. The footwear was meant for their nonprofit organization, Donate Your Old Shoes.
And Kimberly was grateful that someone was willing to spend $20 to ship their used shoes for a good cause, instead of dumping them in the trash.
“It’s amazing how many nice people there are in the world,” Kimberly said.
People from various parts of the globe have donated to the nonprofit, from as far away as Japan and Korea, and all around the United States.
And in turn, the shoes are sent to other countries — so far, adults and children in Nicaragua, the Philippines, Guinea, Liberia and Togo have benefited from others’ generosity.
The idea for collecting used shoes began during the Cleary family’s adventure trip to Nicaragua in 2006.
Philip and Kimberly — with their young children Mimi, Conway, Shea and Joe — chose to visit an orphanage in Managua.
“We wanted to show our kids that it’s not always about iPads and skateboards,” Kimberly said. “We wanted to show them what life was like (elsewhere).”
At the orphanage, the Clearys noted that the children had beds, some books and a few clothes, but they either didn’t have shoes or had mismatched pairs.
“It was sort of like an epiphany, like a light bulb went on,” Philip said.
Upon their return to the United States, the Clearys sought to establish a 501(c)(3) recognized charity to “put shoes on the shoeless worldwide.” Donate Your Old Shoes officially became accepted on Dec. 4, 2006.
In the beginning, the Clearys cleaned out their closets and friends contributed their old footwear, and they took some boxes to Nicaragua.
After a couple of trips, the couple decided to take the charity to the next level. Because two 50-pound pieces of checked baggage were permitted on flights to Nicaragua — which Philip was occasionally visiting due to his interest in buying real estate there — he went to Goodwill, bought suitcases and filled them with used footwear, much of which had been obtained through shoe drives. Philip then took them directly to the Central American country and distributed them.
Meanwhile, the organization’s popularity was catching on — a Web site had been established, donateyouroldshoes.org, and KPBS helped the nonprofit create a video.
“People found us on the Web site; we didn’t do any advertising,” Philip said.
The support came pouring in, and continues today, as the Clearys receive boxes daily. People spend an average of $25 to send their shoes to the nonprofit, sometimes paying as much as $50 — all because of their desire to support the cause. Many groups — such as the Boy Scouts, Rotary and even university organizations — hold shoe drives.
Donations are highest in January — after the holidays — and in September, after parents and their kids have finished their back-to-school shopping, Kimberly said.
Most of the shoes arrive directly at the Clearys’ home, where they are stored until there’s enough to fill a minivan, which takes around six months, Philip said. Occasionally, Kimberly said that local residents will see her car at the store and leave their bags of shoes next to it while she’s inside.
“I’m like Old Mother Hubbard,” she said with a laugh. “I’m known as the shoe lady of Carmel Valley.”
The collection is the easy part of running Donate Your Old Shoes, Philip said.
Kimberly, who does most of the “grunt work,” then takes the shoes to their 20-foot-deep space at Sorrento Valley Self Storage, where they get a special break on the rental fee — something the Clearys are thankful for, because the costs come out of their pockets.
When storage is full, the couple fill a 20-foot shipping container, and Philip lines up a collaborative partner who already has a container being shipped and adds the shoes to it.
Philip explained that it started to become difficult and expensive to take the shoes himself; for one, it cost more than $4,000 to send a container of shoes to Nicaragua.
And he was also encountering road blocks once he arrived in a foreign country with the footwear.
“We got through customs, and they wanted us to pay a duty,” Philip said. “We told them it was for a humanitarian purpose, but they didn’t buy it. It was a real hassle.”
Philip’s job with Donate Your Old Shoes is to find collaborative partners and conduct background research to ensure that the shoes don’t end up on the black market.
“That would be our worst nightmare,” Philip said. “We’d rather keep the shoes and accumulate them than send them to someone we didn’t trust.”
Sometimes people or groups seek out Donate Your Old Shoes to aid the needy in their countries, Philip said. One example is the Organisation Sante Formation, or OSAFO, in Togo, which pays for the shipping of shoes to that country. In fact, OSAFO wants to establish a long-term relationship, Philip said.
“The shoes we’re collecting now are going to the (OSAFO) organization if they can raise the money,” he said.
So far, the Clearys estimate that more than 30,000 pairs of shoes have been collected since the inception of Donate Your Old Shoes, and Philip said the next big goal is to reach 100,000.
“People get a kick out of knowing their shoes have a second life,” he said.
And Kimberly noted that it’s a way to recycle.
“It’s a fun organization and something easy to do,” Kimberly said. “It’s something good, and we like making people smile. We’re not asking for money.”
The Clearys also enjoy the fact that the nonprofit is small — they run it by themselves.
“We like the way it is right now — ma and pa (size),” Philip said.
It seems to be a perfect fit.
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