Inspired by Tu BShevat, day school kids collect shoes

It all started with the letter R.

Because it was time for kindergarten students at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School to learn the letter R, teachers decided to tie their lesson to Tu B’Shevat — using the words “reduce,” “reuse” and “recycle.”

Since then, the kindergarteners have inspired a schoolwide effort to collect old shoes for poor children in Asia and Africa.

“They’re so excited that they can do something to help other people,” said Keren Fisher, one of the Sunnyvale school’s three kindergarten teachers. “It’s a good way for them to help, and also a very personal way because they’re giving away their old shoes that they’ve worn for many months.”

However, this story isn’t simply a tale of one small step from R to S (for shoes).

At first, teachers talked with students about how to recycle paper and other products. Students painted a mural of an eco-friendly town, complete with solar-paneled homes and compost piles near the backyard organic garden.

Then a Sunnyvale Recycling Center representative visited the class and showed the 5- and 6-year-olds some recycled products: carpet made from old milk jugs and an ice-cream scooper made from recycled soda cans.

Kindergarten students Rafi Schreiber (left) and Romi Weiss count and sort used shoes they collected at their school. photo/keren fisher

At that point, Fisher got to thinking that “doing” would be so much more educational that just “seeing.”

“I didn’t want to just read books and process by ourselves,” she said. “I wanted to do something larger.”

While cleaning her closet at home one day, she wondered what to do with her old, worn-out shoes. Would anyone want them? Internet research revealed numerous ways to donate old shoes, and Fisher realized she had found a great way to fuse the 3 Rs of environmentalism with an age-appropriate social-action project.

She and co-teachers Shirat Negev-Berg and Ellen Feldman led their students in a shoe drive, which ends today. One of the first steps was having the kids in their class post flyers around campus explaining the guidelines.

Totally beat-up and worn-out shoes would be donated to Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe, which has recycled 22.5 million athletic shoes into playground and sports surfaces over the past 18 years.

Still wearable (but perhaps ill-fitting) shoes would be donated to From Our Feet, a Palo Alto–based nonprofit that since 2001 has sent more than 25,000 pairs of shoes overseas to developing countries.

The entire 250-kid student body (preschool through 8th grade) soon got involved. Also, a nearby Footwear Etc. shoe store, owned by a couple with grandchildren at the school, donated 40 pairs of shoes toward the effort.

The kindergarteners have counted the new donations each day and then stored them in plastic bags in their classroom, giving them “ownership” of the effort, Fisher said.

The drive has become multidisciplinary — a living lesson in math, the environment, geography and tikkun olam.

As of last week, the school had collected more than 500 pairs of athletic shoes, boots and flats — in only two weeks.

“It’s really atypical for a school this small to collect this many shoes,” said Nick McFalls, a Palo Alto resident and director of From Our Feet. “It’s incredible. And most of the shoes are kids’ shoes, which is really exciting because that’s the biggest demand for us.”

McFalls, a distance runner, started From Our Feet in 2001. After throwing out a pair of what he called “stinky” shoes following a race in Switzerland, he watched a runner from Kenya pull them from the trash, because to him, the shoes were just fine.

“It really made an impression on me,” he said.

And so From Our Feet was born. It remains an entirely voluntary endeavor McFalls, who works with nonprofit aid agencies that send supplies overseas. He arranges to put the shoes in the extra space of shipping containers; the shoes collected in the school’s drive are expected to end up in shipments to Tibet and Lesotho.

Fisher is thrilled by the success of the drive, and said it’s changed the way she thinks about shoes.

“The message I most want to come out of this is that no shoes should ever be going to the landfill,” she said.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.