Soles 4 Souls: Kelowna cobbler collects shoes for people in need around the world

Cobbler Jim Belshaw believes in walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. In fact, he’s made a mission of getting feet around the world into other people’s shoes.

Belshaw owns a shoe repair and retail store called Roy’s Shoes, based in Kelowna, British Columbia.

As one can imagine, cobblers are no longer found on every street corner, and certainly not in remote towns in the interior and northern B.C. Belshaw offers a mail-in shoe repair service to these areas, including Whitehorse and beyond. Customers can send photos of their shoes to Roy’s Shoes, receive an estimate, and mail in their shoes for service.

Belshaw has owned Roy’s shoes for approximately seven years, and in that time, has done his part to keep shoes and boots in good condition. However, what he is recognized across Canada for is keeping hundreds of thousands of unwanted shoes out of landfills and onto needy feet throughout the world through an organization called Soles4Souls Canada.

“I was following that charity in the U.S. when I bought the shoe store and I thought that once I got organized I was going to do this,” Belshaw says.

Soles4Souls collects gently used footwear and distributes them around the world to people who have none or need better ones.

His plans were accelerated with the 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti. Horrified at the images of loss and disaster, Beshaw began collecting shoes sooner than anticipated.

“The first year, I thought I’d collect a couple of hundred — I got 45,000,” he says. “When I sent them off, the charity, based out of Nashville called me up and said, ‘Holy cow, look at all those shoes! Who are you and what do you do up there?'”

After that, Belshaw founded the Canadian counterpart of Soles4Souls, and has applied for charitable status. To date, Soles4Souls has collected approximately 400,000 shoes across the country, which are sent down to the charity’s sorting centre in Nevada.

Belshaw explains that the shoes are first offered up locally for free.

“Before we send them down to Nevada, we open the doors to all agencies, so anyone in town or up and down the [Okanagan] Valley are offered anything they want,” he says. “Probably 10 to 15 per cent of the shoes are funnelled back into the community.

At the sorting centre, the shoes are assigned a grade of A, B, or C. Grade A shoes are pre-owned, but are nearly indistinguishable from new. Grade B shoes have been worn, but are still in very good condition, while grade C are clearly worn and possibly damaged, but still useful to someone. From the sorting centre, the shoes are distributed to agencies on the ground in 129 countries.

There are several reasons why shoes are important in impoverished areas. As Belshaw points out, in some countries, children are not permitted to attend school without shoes, so being barefoot can be a direct impediment to education.

Walking barefoot can also put people at risk of infection by such parasites as the hookworm, which commonly penetrates the skin in areas where feces are present on the ground.

As well, lack of proper shoes can put workers at risk of injury.

“There are people doing labour while wearing flipflops,” Belshaw says. “If they sustain an injury due to not having proper footwear, they might become unable to work.”

Belshaw and his wife have had the opportunity to go to Haiti and distribute shoes to orphanages and community centres. He will return in October with other members of their community. In the meantime, he continues to run Roy’s Shoes and is currently looking for a designated drop off location for both shoe repairs and donations in the Whitehorse area.

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