Wayne Elsey Changes Lives, One Step at a Time

In 2004, footwear industry executive Wayne Elsey was watching TV coverage of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, when he was struck by the image of a single shoe washing up on a beach. Immediately he called fellow shoe execs and secured the donation of a quarter-million shoes for tsunami victims. After doing the same in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Elsey knew he was on to something, so he started Soles4Souls, a Nashville-based nonprofit that’s now given away over 10 million pairs of new and used shoes in 125 countries. With donations coming in constantly from manufacturers and house closets, Elsey gives away a pair of shoes every nine seconds. He also travels around the world to make sure shoes are put on the right feet. Says Elsey, “I’m still doing business, but now my return on investment is people’s lives and not how much money I can make.”

What’s the most profound difference you’ve seen shoes make in someone’s life?
Several years ago in Mexico, I met a 75-year-old man digging dirt barefoot in 100-degree weather. I gave him a brand new pair of boots, and I had to stay and teach him how to tie his laces. It took him 40 tries to finally get it, and then he gave me a high-five. At first, I was angry that someone this old had never been given a pair of shoes in his life. As Americans, we can’t fathom it.

Getting people to give isn’t always easy. Why have you been so successful so quickly?
We’re easy to understand. We get and give shoes. Most people don’t realize 300 million children are walking around right now without shoes. Shoes are relational and emotional. Once people realize how many others don’t know the feeling of wearing shoes, they’re willing to share.

How used can shoes be and still be useful?
We won’t throw anything away. We have a group in Pakistan that takes shoes that don’t even match. They’re that desperate. I was just in Haiti, where I gave shoes to a men’s soccer team that had been playing in women’s old Keds. I’ve met kids with the toes cut out of their shoes, because they’ve outgrown them and can’t buy a new pair.

Next big move?
We just launched Clothes4Souls. I want to continue giving people products that raise their level of dignity. When I give someone a pair of shoes or some new clothes, I’m telling them to look forward to a better day.

SHARE YOUR TREAD
Have a pair of old kicks in the closet? Visit soles4souls.org to send them to someone in need.