- Associated Press - Saturday, April 18, 2015

HAMMOND, La. (AP) - It started with a pair of Air Jordans.

David Johnson Jr., of Hammond, was working as a substitute teacher at Amite High School when a student complimented his shoes, saying she’s always wanted a pair of the Nikes.

Johnson, a self-proclaimed shoe fanatic and collector, had a friend who was selling a pair of the shoes in his student’s size and bought them for her.

“She works real hard,” Johnson said of his former student. “She’s an extremely smart, intelligent young lady and I thought she was extremely deserving of a pair of nice shoes.”

Soon after, Johnson and his cousin Tyron Tillis Jr., both avid shoe aficionados owning about 200 pairs between them, decided their overflowing closets needed paring down. Many of the shoes they decided to get rid of had never been worn or had only been worn once and were in new condition.

Johnson started keeping an eye out during his substitute teaching gigs for students who either needed a pair of shoes or seemed to deserve a gift for their dedication to schoolwork.

“We would find a kid who needed shoes, especially if they wore our size, and we’d give them a pair out of our closet that we hadn’t worn,” Johnson said. “You could just tell they needed shoes. The ones they were wearing were old hand-me-downs or didn’t fit right.”

Johnson and Tillis contacted other Amite school administrators and asked if they had any students who were in need. They started going to mid-range shoe stores and scavenging the sale racks for good deals and collecting them with their personal money.

They only buy name-brand shoes - they say they don’t want to give out shoes that they wouldn’t be proud to wear themselves and that the children should have something of good quality.

“When we find a kid, we give them the shoes that we have or go out and find a pair in their size,” he said.

Last year, they gave out 50 pairs of school to children in the parish, mostly in Amite schools.

“The happiness we saw in the children we gave shoes to was one of the reasons we wanted to expand this,” he said.

The cousins both work at the Walmart Distribution Center, Johnson as a quality assurance manager and Tillis as an asset protection associate.

Through a work program that encourages employees to serve the community, Johnson and Tillis are getting money to buy about 200 pairs of shoes for the program, which they are now calling “Sole Givers” and have registered as a nonprofit organization.

On August 8, they will distribute the shoes to school-age children in the parish from the Amite Community Center. Attending children will get a raffle ticket for a chance to win one of the pairs of shoes. There will also be speakers that Johnson said will encourage the children to work hard at school and to focus on their futures.

“We won’t be able to provide every student with shoes, but we will be able to help about 200 of them,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Tills plan to grow the organization first through the parish, then the tri-parish area and then the state. Eventually, they hope to also give out clothing, school uniforms and school supplies.

Their employer, Johnson said, will increase grant money for the project as they grow as part of a “Volunteerism Always Pays” program they have been accepted into.

They have not given out any shoes yet this year, instead collecting them for the August event. Currently, they have about 25 pairs purchased out of pocket and are awaiting grant money from Wal-Mart. They are accepting new or like-new condition shoes, as well as gift cards for shoe stores or checks. Everything is tax-deductible.

After the giveaway event, the pair plan to check in with schools monthly to check for needs and will mostly be focusing on children who need shoes, though they will reward a child who has done especially well occasionally.

“Say a teacher has a student who works hard a brings up a D in math to a B in six weeks,” he said. “We’d like to be able to give that child a pair of nice shoes to reward that and tell them they did a good job. We believe that the decisions that you make when you’re young affect your whole life. Controlling your behavior and getting an education will help get the best job you can and be able to support your family.”

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Information from: The Daily Star, https://www.hammondstar.com

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