The Sneaker Project ofJefferson City helps children and teens take steps in the right direction.

Tennis shoes are a big deal for kids and teens. They’ll tell you new ones help them run faster, kick harder, and jump higher. They’re probably right, but it could also be the confidence talking. It’s the kind of confidence that comes from walking in anew pair of shoes.

“We try hard to pick shoes that help kids fit in — especially for older kids who want brand name shoes,” says Colby Forrest-Dietzel, president of The Sneaker Project.

The Sneaker Project provides brand-new footwear to qualifying youth in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in Cole, Miller, Moniteau, and Osage counties. In those counties, more than 8,000 kids are eligible for a free lunch, which means they qualify for a free pair of shoes through the project.

Before COVID-19, The Sneaker Project distributed vouchers to school nurses and counselors. When school staff saw kids in need, they provided them with a voucher to get shoes from a local retailer. In 2021, The Sneaker Project provided 907 pairs of shoes. This year, they’re on track to beat that record with 570 pairs sent out before the end of May.

“COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise for us. Before COVID-19, we gave out the vouchers, but that didn’t mean kids got new shoes,” Colby says. “Some didn’t have transportation or other barriers that kept them from going to the store.”

Following the start of the pandemic, The Sneaker Project pivoted to taking orders from school staff , fulfilling them online, delivering them to the school, and switching out kids’ shoes during the school day. Thisprocess guarantees kids get the shoes they need.

“We’re flexible,” says Executive Director of The Sneaker Project, Theresa McClellan. “I got a request on the last day of school, and I knew we needed to act fast to connect with the kid. I bought the shoes and delivered them to school on the same day.”

Theresa adds that school contacts are key to the project’s success because they are best at identifying kids in need. They see kids going through growth spurts or who don’t have proper shoes for gym class.

Theresa remembers one instance where two boys walked to school in boots that didn’t fit them. She re-calls the stigma and blisters those boys must have endured until they got proper tennis shoes to fi t them.

“They needed size 14 shoes,” Theresa says. “They weren’t easy to find, but we tracked some down. We do the same thing when kids have special needs for braces or want school colors on their shoes.”

Because schools deliver the shoes to kids, The Sneaker Project board members, unfortunately, don’t get to witness the kids’ reactions when they receive their shoes. But when they do get word of their reactions, they hear that some kids wonder if they get to take them home, other kids go to bed with them on, or some refuse to ever take them off .

“We don’t get to see the joy first hand, but it’s not about us anyway,” Colby says.

The Sneaker Project is a United Way agency, so they’re encouraged to partner with other agencies to expand their services. In 2020, The Sneaker Project partnered with The Boys and Girls Club of Jefferson City(BGCJC) to distribute shoes.

Kelly Marshall, unit director for the Railton Elementary Site for BGCJC and a Sneaker Project board member, compiles the orders and the shoes are then delivered to her office. This fall, The Sneaker Project will deliver about 160 pairs of sneakers to BGCJC campers.

Kelly says she has one child who always asks when his new shoes are coming because he can’t run fast any-more in his old ones.

“He puts on his new shoes, states that every new pair are the ones he’s always wanted, and then runs down the hall,” Kelly describes. “He says, ‘You know I have to see if these are fast.’”

Kelly also adds that when he does proclaim the new shoes make him run faster, he refuses to take them off.

“Teens are most excited,” Kelly says. “They put up a front at first, but then they’re all smiles and taking pictures.”

More recently, The Sneaker Project has also started providing new socks with the shoe delivery.

“You’d think it’s Christmas around here,” Kelly says.“I kept getting hugs for giving them socks. I thought to myself, ‘this is a thing.’”

“We try hard to pick shoes that help kids fit in…”