By Janie Magruder
Michael Sublette hasn’t walked a mile in the shoes of a foster child or an underprivileged adolescent. But the Tempe resident did grow up with three brothers and plenty of hand-me-down clothes, and he knows the joy of receiving a new pair of sneakers.
So, when a representative of Dick’s Sporting Goods called in January to offer 9,000 free pairs of youth athletic shoes to the nonprofit for which he volunteers, Sublette stepped up to the plate.
“The need is so great,” said Sublette of Tempe-based Arizonans for Children (arizonansforchildren.org), which since 2003 has helped abused, abandoned and neglected children in foster care. “When a child gets a new pair of shoes, they’re absolutely elated. By the smiles on their faces, you wouldn’t know they had any kind of problem in the world.”
There are more than 14,000 foster children in Arizona, according to the state Department of Child Safety. Arizonans for Children has two centers that provide supervised visits between children and their parents, tutoring and mentoring, and special events such as holiday parties and cultural activities.
And shoes. So far, 1,000 pairs have been distributed under the banner, Best Foot Forward, to more than 31 organizations. These include churches, schools, foster homes Native American tribes and behavioral centers, among others, that partner with Arizonans for Children.
About 350 pairs were given in June to children in the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in southern Arizona and the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix. The delivery was handled by Desert Rain Behavioral Health Services, a Tempe provider of therapy, support and essential emergency supplies such as food and cleaning products to people in need.
Precious anecdotes about the shoe drops — the little boy who put on his new pair and refused to take them off and the man who humbly asked if there might be shoes for his wife, too — were reported to Crystal Reidy, Desert Rain’s community affairs specialist.
“He advocated for his wife to make sure all of his family felt cared for,” Reidy said. “Shoes are so essential, especially in Arizona, and when you get a new pair of shoes, you feel like you are ready to move forward.”
Sublette had the shoes, but no large network to help disburse them to rural areas statewide. At a meeting in May with Michael Droll, state commander of the Arizona Rangers, a uniformed law enforcement auxiliary, Sublette pitched Best Foot Forward.
“What a great match,” Droll said, referring to the 500 members in 22 companies across the state who subscribe to the Arizona Rangers’ mission of supporting youth organizations and activities. “These kids just want to be loved and supported and know that people care.”
Dick’s Sporting Goods believes in Arizonans for Children’s mission to alleviate hardships and improve the lives of abused, fragile and neglected kids, too, said Shelby Allen, the national retailer’s communications and corporate relations specialist.
“As it can be difficult for kids in foster care to receive new shoes and clothes, Dick’s is grateful to be part of the solution,” Allen said.
By August, Sublette hopes thousands of new shoes will be on the feet of children from Bisbee to Kingman and from Yuma to Show Low. And if Dick’s calls in the future, Best Foot Forward will mobilize again.
“I would love it if this is an ongoing project,” said Reidy, “because I don’t think there’s another program like it in Arizona. And it’s a never-ending battle to keep shoes on kids’ feet.”