Our Journey

  Taking Service in Stride
A shoe program gives back to the communities that host APTA.
By Brad Thuringer, PTA | October 2013
Brad Thuringer, PTA, is an instructor and the academic coordinator of clinical education
for the PTA program at Lake Area Technical Institute in Watertown, South Dakota.

There's a good reason why social responsibility is highlighted in the APTA documents Professionalism in Physical Therapy: Core Values and Values-Based Behaviors for the Physical Therapist Assistant. Service to patients, communities, and the wider world is what physical therapists (PTs) and (PTAs) are all about.

As was noted in the September 2013 PT in Motion cover story on professionalism1-which included links to those documents-social responsibility is explicitly aligned with the Code of Ethics for the Physical Therapist and is among the behaviors that inform the Standards of Ethical Conduct for the Physical Therapist Assistant. Social responsibility is our promise and duty as PTs, PTAs, and PT/PTA students.

How it manifests itself in each of us, however is as distinct as is the individual. In my case, it was a matter of seeing an opportunity and concluding that, for me, the shoe fit.

Boston Beginnings
It started at APTA's Annual Conference in Boston in 2005. I was walking back to the hotel with my colleague and fellow PTA Kerry Williams. We'd had a late dinner and decided to stop at a fast food restaurant for ice cream. I saw a mother and her 2 kids, a brother and sister ages maybe 9 and 11, sitting at a table. There was no food in front of them-just several large bags brimming with what looked like the family's possessions. They looked bedraggled and tired.
I managed to engage them in a bit of small talk, and I mentioned that Kerry and I were planning to get ice cream. When the little boy blurted out, "That sounds good!" that was the opening I needed to convince the mom to allow me to buy the family dinner. They thanked me, and I was happy for the opportunity to do something positive.
But things didn't end there. In fact, that was just the beginning.

I'd noticed that the girl's cloth tennis shoes were quite worn, and that the laces were tied only about halfway up because both of them had broken at some point. That image was on my mind afterward, as Kerry and I walked the rest of the way back to the hotel.

I recalled how, earlier in the week, I'd floated to some of my PTA colleagues the idea of creating a service activity to give something back to the cities that host our conferences. What about some sort of shoe-distribution event to benefit the children of homeless families?

When I got back home to South Dakota, I did a lot of web research on how I might set up such a project. I'll spare you most of the details, but Kerry and I sent out e-mail appeals, and the result was that about 55 PTAs brought new pairs of athletic shoes to the APTA Annual Conference in Orlando in 2006, which we then distributed, along with athletic socks, to kids at a Salvation Army shelter. It was in Orlando that interest started building to an eventual fervor I didn't dare imagine that fateful day in Boston. That first shoe distribution was called Shoeless Sunday-so named because Sunday was the day on which PTAs met as a body at that time, and because in 2006 only PTAs were involved in the shoe program.

How quickly things would change!

Steady Evolution

With each Annual Conference, interest and shoe numbers grew-and I, too, grew in my understanding of what needed to be done to maximize the event's impact and ensure that the needs of all children within our targeted shelters were served.
In Washington, DC, in 2007, e-mail blasts to PTAs and PTA educators netted more than 100 pairs of new athletic shoes, some of which were carried in individuals' luggage and some of which I received in the mail, and in turn mailed ahead to the conference hotel. Again, the shoes-and-socks distribution brought smiles to children, but it also brought the realization that some sizes were overrepresented and others underrepresented, that we weren't getting girls' and boys' shoes in equal numbers, and that, honestly, we needed a better system.

The 2008 Annual Conference was in San Antonio, Texas. In a variety of respects it was a watershed year for what I renamed Shoes4Kids when Sunday didn't work out as the distribution day. I'd called ahead to local homeless shelters and had secured lists of their specific shoe needs-the gender and shoe sizes of the kids we wanted to serve. That information also guided me in purchasing shoes with cash donations I'd received. Not only were the numbers of donated pairs of shoes continuing to rise-my oldest daughter, Alexis, rode to San Antonio with me in a shoe-filled SUV-but word was getting out throughout the conference and within the House of Delegates. Individual PTs and PT education programs started asking how they could join the PTAs in facilitating Shoes4Kids' growth.

(Shoes4Kids also was a footnote to history in San Antonio. After overcoming security concerns, we distributed new pairs of shoes to children at 1 shelter who'd already been enmeshed in a big national news story-kids who'd been living inside the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints' compound in Texas before that polygamous sect's base was raided by federal agents.)

Each succeeding conference brought greater numbers of shoes. Baltimore in 2009 outperformed San Antonio the previous year, and the Boston conference in 2010 also saw an influx of Thuringers! In addition to Alexis again joining me, my wife, Anita, and my other daughter, MacKenzie, accompanied me in Beantown for that shoe distribution. That was fitting-not only because Boston was the place where Shoes4Kids started, but because my family deserved to see the fruits of their labors. They'd been the ones, after all (my son, Tyler, too), who'd navigated an annual mini-shoe warehouse in our living room, sorted the pairs, torn off the tags, unstuffed the toes, and boxed the shoes ahead of the onsite distribution.

The 2011 Annual Conference was at National Harbor, Maryland, near Washington, DC. That was big year in the evolution of Shoes4Kids, because that was when Colleen Kigin, PT, DPT, MS, MPA, FAPTA-an active APTA member and former Board officer-hooked me up with Stanley Paris, PT, PhD, FAPTA, and his wife, Catherine, Patla, PT, DHSc, MMSc, OCS, MTC, FAAOMPT. They offered to partner up Shoes4Kids with the doctor of physical therapy program at the University of St Augustine in Florida. This meant that Shoes4Kids had a shoe-storage facility and an eager pool of student volunteers at the ready when APTA's Annual Conference came to Tampa in 2012.

It was in Tampa that Catherine arose on the House floor to personally ask then-APTA President R Scott Ward, PT, PhD, if he was ready and willing to rally his DPT program at the University of Utah around Shoes4Kids, because the newly renamed Conference & Exposition would be held in Salt Lake City in June 2013. Scott accepted that challenge with great enthusiasm, and the rousing result was that more than 1,100 underserved children in Salt Lake City received a new pair of athletic shoes and a new pair of socks. As I put it in an appreciative e-mail to all the amazing people who helped make the Salt Lake City distribution such a big success, our profession "helped more than 1,100 children feel better about themselves. It helped them be active-to play and exercise. Our profession did something really, really good while visiting Salt Lake City."

Since the program's inception, Shoes4Kids has distributed more than 6,000 pairs of new, brand-name athletic shoes and more than 5,000 pairs of socks to children in APTA conference host cities. Next summer's conference, to be held in Charlotte, North Carolina, will be known as NEXT. It will be the next opportunity for our profession to display its deep and abiding sense of social responsibility in this very special way. The DPT program at Duke University already has graciously offered to be Shoes4Kids' host school in 2014.

The Scent of Success

The reception and feedback from children and facilities we've visited over the years has been incredible. I'm sorry that my friend Kerry Williams, who died of cancer several years ago, isn't here to see how extraordinarily our fledgling program has grown, but I know he'd feel as humbled and grateful as am I.

So many words and images stick with me, energizing me to want to do even more. I'll always remember, for example, the boy at a shelter in Woodbridge, Virginia, in 2011, who didn't want to try on his new pair of shoes because, he reluctantly confided to me, his feet smelled. I assured him that I could relate-just ask my wife, I said! He soon was fitted with a new pair of shoes that he couldn't wait to wear to school.

Then there was the time a dad in Baltimore solemnly and with deep appreciation shook my hand after we'd given his son a new pair of basketball shoes. I still choke up when I recall that man's expression. Memorable, too, was the joy on a young girl's face in Salt Lake City earlier this year when she exclaimed, "I'm so glad I don't have to wear these anymore!" She was trying to hide from sight her old slippers, but I caught a glimpse of them. They were worn completely through.

I read the thank-you letters and e-mails from officials of shelters that Shoes4Kids has served and see such words as "priceless," "wonderful," "blessed," and "overwhelmed." Those tributes tell me that all the PTs, PTAs, and students who've helped make Shoes4Kids what it is today are doing our profession very, very proud.

Want to Help?

My hope for Shoes4Kids is that it will continue to grow, and that it will serve even more children in the future than it does now. To that end, I'm working on securing 501(c)(3) tax status, which would establish the program as a nonprofit organization and facilitate procurement of donations from companies and facilities.

I also intend to create a web presence for Shoes4Kids. People have expressed surprise there isn't one yet, but I can tell you that it's on my to-do list!

For now, the best way to help-with donations of shoes and cash, other offers of assistance, and your ideas-is to contact me directly at bradthuringer.

In Salt Lake City this June, the APTA House of Delegates adopted a succinct but bold new vision of the profession of physical therapy-"Transforming society by optimizing movement to improve the human experience." That phrase, to me, is a pretty good description of what Shoes4Kids aspires to do. I hope you'll keep that in mind as you consider how best to meet your own social responsibility as a PT, PTA, or PT/PTA student.

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