This is the 11th installment of “Old Pueblo Abuelo,” a Sunday thought on positive things happening in the Old Pueblo from a sometimes cranky and often times humorous grandfather actually born in Tucson and writing from my desk in Tucson.
It was a day back in 2012 or 2013. I’m not sure. I was walking down the line during stretching exercises in my gym at Rio Vista Elementary School, somewhat like high school football coaches do before a game, when something caught my eye. I thought one of my kindergarten students was wearing sandals because I could see a big toe sticking out. I was wrong – it was poking out from a hole in his tennis shoes.
Growing up in a somewhat poor neighborhood, but unaware we were all poor, I knew tennis shoes had to last until they literally fell off your foot, until they were no more than threads attached to a dirty piece of rubber. Shoelaces? What are those?
I don’t remember anything about the shoes I wore. I know I had nice shoes for church functions but I really don’t remember tennis shoes until I played basketball in middle school and Converse was all anyone had. Now, one pair of sneakers can cost as much as a few weeks of groceries or as much as an electric bill. Some kids have been known to kill other kids for their sneakers.
This is my 33rd or 34th year of teaching, I’m getting old. Anyway, I spent over a decade not even thinking about the shoes my students wore to class because, in the beginning, I worked with the more severely disabled kids in my district. Sneakers were the least of my worries. Eight of my students died of “natural” causes before I reached the age of 30. I can still see Kirk, Michael, Heather and Victor in my dreams, I had to get out.
Slowly, I started to notice teaching in a Title I school meant more than test scores and listening to parents complain about who got to be the star in a play or the got to run in the 100 meter run in a track meet. I’m not wired for that kind of environment. Teaching kids who looked like me or grew up like me meant being a father of sorts, an unintentional role model. It also meant teaching to the soul and it eventually became a case of teaching through the sole.
I noticed more and more of my students didn’t come to my physical education class with tennis shoes on, especially the girls, and those thoughts started to take up more and more of my crowded brain. I left for lunch and came back with a new pair of shoes that day so long ago. The shoes cost me about $15 to $20 but the look on the face of the little boy who once had a toe sticking out of a hole was now whole. I was whole.
I started buying more and more and more. I convinced my self it was only $500 or so but it must have been more than $3,000 in a few years. On a teacher’s salary. I started to go in debt and no one even knew I was doing this. Some teachers started catching on but that was it.
I knew if I gave money to the families that money would be used for other things. Little girls were missing out because their families thought pretty dress shoes were the way to go if they could only afford one pair. All they did was hold their daughters back.
Then, I started reaching out to high school teams and I started taking senior photos. High school teams started collecting tennis shoes for me at events and all my photo profits went to buying sneakers. By 2016, I collected about $40,000 worth on tennis shoes and my friend Brad Allis found out and he did a story on my Kicks4Kids program for the Tucson Weekly. My program passed $400,000 worth this year, some five years later, thanks to that one story.
I’m closing in fast on 17,000 pairs of sneakers. That might not seem like a lot but it comes out to about $425,000. I’ve had everyone from a girl in Colorado to former University of Arizona pitcher Alicia Hollowell-Dunn donate shoes to the cause. Teams and programs from Catalina Foothills, Pusch Ridge, Canyon del Oro, Ironwood Ridge, Salpointe, Rincon/University and Mountain View High School have donated along with Painted Sky Elementary. Club baseball teams and businesses like Frog and Firkin have given, Heck, even my friends, the football referees have donated. Several of my friends have had parties where sneakers got you in the door.
77 schools have received new sneakers from my program. Of those 77, only two elementary schools were staffed with uninviting front office staff and one of those had a principal who didn’t want to be bothered with the donation. (I left them with the school nurse anyway). Meeting the hundreds of more welcoming staff members at our other schools was a byproduct that I wasn’t looking for but that makes me whole also.
I foolishly spent almost $800 on getting non-profit status and I let that expire quickly because $800 means over two dozen new sneakers and no one can’t wrote-off $25 anyway. What a waste. There have been other setbacks like coaches not following through on promises to collect tennis shoes and people donating dress shoes, boots, sandals and flip flops, which defeats the purpose of my program. (But I find a home for those too). As for not following through, I stopped asking schools to help out. There is no pressure. All the donations have come from coaches approaching me over the last several years.
My own family still buys shoes for organizations like refugees and shelters for women. I would never expect others to donate to those causes through me.
My goal is to stop at $1,000,000. It can be done. I should be near 70 years old when that happens but I will be whole. Thanks to those of you who have donated.
Andy Morales was recognized by the AIA as the top high school reporter in 2014, he was awarded the Ray McNally Award in 2017, a 2019 AZ Education News award winner and he has been a youth, high school and college coach for over 30 years. He was the first in Arizona to write about high school beach volleyball and high school girls wrestling. His own children have won multiple state high school championships and were named to all-state teams. Competing in hockey, basketball, baseball and track & field in high school, his unique perspective can only be found here and on AZPreps365.com. Andy is the Southern Arizona voting member of the Ed Doherty Award, recognizing the top football player in Arizona, and he was named a Local Hero by the Tucson Weekly for 2016. Andy was named an Honorary Flowing Wells Caballero in 2019, became a member of the Sunnyside Los Mezquites Cross Country Hall of Fame in 2021 and he was a member of the Amphi COVID-19 Blue Ribbon Committee. Contact Andy Morales at email@example.com