Barefoot homeless inspire shoe collection

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Matthew Gomez, 11, walks barefoot and shirtless through all the shoes that Castillo brought to New Iberia trying to decide which pair he wants. Courtesy

Matthew Gomez, 11, walks among the shoes Eric Castillo delivered, trying to decide which pair he wants. He showed up by himself to get shoes for his mother and brother as well. Courtesy

Graduate steps up to collect thousands of pairs of shoes.

By Alison Graef

sac-ranger@alamo.edu

A fire science graduate of this college has walked the walk when it comes to seeing a need and taking action.

In four years, Eric Castillo, personal trainer and kinesiology senior at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has collected 15,762 pairs of shoes in San Antonio for people in need.

Castillo founded A Walk In My Shoes in July 2012 during his sophomore year at the University of the Incarnate Word. As a 28-year-old nontraditional student, he felt blessed to have the opportunity to go back to school and wanted to give back to the community. However, he knew that if he was going to fully dedicate himself to something, it had to be his project.

In summer 2012, Castillo was in Austin and noticed homeless people and kids wearing old, battered shoes or no shoes at all. An athlete at the time, he was used to changing his shoes several times a day and having shoes for specialized purposes. The idea that many people struggle to have even a single pair of shoes stood out strongly to him, and he decided to do something about it.

Ideas brewing, Castillo returned home and started a Facebook page. His goal? To collect 500 donations of new or gently used pairs of shoes.

“For the first picture, I had to use my own shoes,” Castillo said. “I had to pull them all out of my closet and put them on a table … as if they were donated.”

Castillo planned his first shoe drive for H-E-B at Bandera Road and Loop 1604. Soon he began receiving phone calls and emails from media organizations asking if they could help with promotion.

When the day finally came for the first drive, Castillo was shocked at the turnout. He received 560 pairs of shoes in four hours.

Sherry Guidry, New Iberia, La., city councilwoman, greets Eric Castillo as residents of New Iberia go through the 1,762 pairs of shoes he delivered.   Courtesy

Sherry Guidry, New Iberia, La., city councilwoman, greets Eric Castillo as residents of New Iberia go through the 1,762 pairs of shoes he delivered. Courtesy

“I felt like I had something here,” he said.

Excited by the drive’s outcome, he held another four-hour drive a few weeks later at Marshall High School. At his second drive, Castillo received 1,200 donations.

“At that point, it snowballed,” Castillo said. “It literally went from holding one shoe drive in one month or two months, to 15 shoe drives a month at different locations.”

Six months after the first drive, Castillo had collected more than 5,000 pairs of shoes. He was donating the shoes to causes such as Haven for Hope, Boys and Girls Club, SAMMinistries and churches. In four years, Castillo amassed more than 14,000 pairs.

As his program grew, however, Castillo began to feel out of touch with the people he was helping.

“What I missed was collecting the shoes, then driving them around downtown looking for homeless people under a bridge and setting them out and letting them try on the shoes,” Castillo said. “I felt bad, like I was (now) doing it for the wrong reasons. … I felt like the fire was burnt out.”

It was a flood that finally rekindled Castillo’s fire. Flooding in Louisiana this summer left 13 dead and thousands displaced and homeless. Watching TV coverage of the devastation, Castillo noticed shoes floating by in the floodwaters and children walking barefoot in puddles.

Castillo decided to collect shoes for Louisiana for the entire month of September. He partnered with a friend who manages The Vitamin Shoppe at Alamo Ranch to have his location be a drop-off point for donations. The drive was so successful that it carried over into the end of October and collected 1,762 pairs of shoes.

Nearly done with classes at UTSA, Castillo felt like he could dedicate himself entirely to his mission. On Oct. 14, he and a friend loaded up a 24-foot U-Haul with the shoes and drove to New Iberia, La.

“Once I loaded up that U-Haul with 1,762 pairs of shoes, it really hit me that this was an amazing experience,” Castillo said.

New Iberia was small, rundown and overcrowded with people displaced from the flooding, Castillo said.

“You were driving through a ghetto, that’s what it was — people in their front yards, on the streets — it was infested with drugs and smell,” Castillo said.

Ill-equipped to distribute the shoes on his own, Castillo had partnered with LaTrina Johnson, founder of the New Iberia ministry Guardian Angel Community Development, to handle promotion and distribution.

“I was just really blessed; they took care of me,” Castillo said. “I didn’t do anything — my work was done. We were in their community so I didn’t want to overstep.”

The shoes were set out in the parking lot of the former Holsum Bakery and Thrift Store by 10 Guardian Angel volunteers, and distribution began. Lines were formed as the news of the drive spread by word of mouth through the community. Each person could have two pairs of shoes.

“People didn’t show up in cars because they didn’t have any,” Castillo said. “You saw people coming out of alleys, people walking and showing up with no shoes because they needed shoes. That’s when you know you’re in the right place.”

Matthew Gomez, 11, arrived shirtless and shoeless in the last half hour of the 5.5-hour distribution, Castillo said. Matthew had heard from a friend that there were shoes being given away and walked barefoot and alone from his house two blocks away. He wanted to get shoes for himself, his mother, who was on bed rest, and younger brother.

Volunteers called his mother to get her and the brother’s sizes, and then drove Matthew home with shoes on his feet and two trash bags full of shoes for him and his family.

When the drive ended, there were just 15 pairs of shoes left over, which Guardian Angel took for their ongoing community ministry.

“It was very rewarding and very humbling and kind of just wanted to make you cry,” Castillo said.

A Walk In My Shoes has started the filing process to become a nonprofit to make it easier to collect monetary donations.

A Walk In My Shoes has accepted just two monetary donations, totaling $1,800, in its five-year existence.

The Louisiana trip cost Castillo $1,200 to transport the shoes.

“I’ve never been one to ask for money — ask for shoes, not money,” Castillo said.

Castillo foresees A Walk In My Shoes expanding outside this city.

To learn more, call Castillo at 210-833-8786 or email pinnacle.fitness@yahoo.com.

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