The Washington Post
Building self-confidence in children is the heart and sole of charity’s mission
“It’s a whole different generation,” Barbara Mickles said out loud, to no one in particular, shaking her head and adding a grandmotherly “mmm-hmmm” to underscore the absurdity of $100 sneakers on ever-growing kid feet.
Mickles, 62, was watching a swarm of kids, including a few of her 16 grandchildren, go giddy over sneakers — Nike, Adidas, Champion. All the hot brands.
Back in Arkansas, Shoe Carnival was where her kids got shoes. About $10 a pair. Why would kids want to wear shoes that cost the same as a grocery trip?
The classroom caste system of fashion has always been around. Kids can be cruel; kids want to stand out, or they aren’t safe standing out. Sneaker culture is this generation’s chapter of that enduring struggle.
One group found that by conquering one piece of that struggle — walking into school in that new pair of kicks — a lot of other pieces fall into place.
“When our kids get their new athletic shoes, 70% percent of our schools report an increase in physical activity and 40% of our schools report higher attendance,” said a survey done by Shoes That Fit, the folks who put fancy feet on Mickles’s grandkids that day, giving them that ticket into sneaker culture.
Original sneakerheads trace their origins to the mid-’80s, and the drip of Michael Jordan’s signature high-tops. Within African American sports and hip-hop culture, sneakers became a connection to Jordan and his larger success beyond the court, as well as
“psychological drivers of behavior including peer influence, self-esteem,” according to a research paper explaining the cultural significance of sneakers written by Delisia Matthews while she was an assistant professor at North Carolina State.
Sneaker culture is now the mainstream. And the dilemma about how much to support your kids’ obsession — and whether you can even afford it — is why this is also a parenting story.
“Kids were saying my other shoes were ugly,” Adedoyin Adeoye, 10, said as she cradled a pretty pair of peach-colored Nikes she just got for the new school year.
Her mom said she couldn’t afford to buy her kids these kinds of shoes — and frankly, she wasn’t sure she’d buy them if she could afford them. What sense does it make to spend that kind of money on shoes when kids also have to be clothed and fed, when bills need paying and inflation is bonkers?
“Walmart. That’s what I’m buying them,” said Sarena Barnes, 36, who has six feet to worry about, feet that grow bigger every day, it seems.
Her daughter says mom spends about $10 a pair on her shoes. But on Saturday, she was hugging the box with a yummy pair of aqua Adidas Questars. The cost of those would put three pairs of Wal-mart shoes on all of her siblings’ feet.
“These are sooooo nice,” said Azaria Snowden, 10. Over at the school supply section, she got a backpack to match them. She can’t wait for the first day of school.
The nonprofit that gave Azaria those shoes says that athletic shoes can be as important to a child’s school performance as a new backpack and school supplies. They give a kid — no matter their shape, size, color or age — a quality that’s always a little elusive to harness. Selfconfidence.
“One of the first kids we worked with had a terrible truancy problem,” said Amy Fass, CEO of Shoes That Fit, the California group giving away thousands of high-end shoes to D.C. kids last week. The kid’s parents swore they took him to school, but then he rarely made it into a classroom.
“The principal finally found him hiding in the bushes outside,” Fass said. “All he had to wear were his sister’s pink jelly shoes. He was being bullied every time he went into the school.”
As soon as the group got him a slick pair of sneakers, the principal said, he never missed a day of school.
That sweet kid. I can’t imagine how hard that had to be. I feel his pain, in a small way. When all the cool kids had Nike Cortez on their feet, my immigrant parents got me Kmart knockoffs that had a tulip shape where the swoosh should be. I sat on the floor of the school bus the first day I wore them. No one would let me near them with those shoes.
“Shoes,” Fass said, “are one of the first giveaways of poverty.”
The group started in Southern California in the early ’90s. That’s about the time that I was starting out my journalism career covering crime, when one of the stories that always made national news was the kid getting robbed or even killed for the expensive sneakers on his feet.
Me back then: “Why would anybody spend that kind of money on sneakers? Especially kids’ sneakers???”
Me last December at City Beats sneaker store in D.C., remembering my tulip shoes: “Do y’all have the Dunks in a 91/2? My kid’s birthday is tomorrow and I still haven’t found them!”
Sure, tulip shoes, jelly shoes — those hardships build character. But let’s be real. Most childhoods have plenty of characterbuilding opportunities that don’t have to involve shame.
“I buy them nice shoes twice a year, at the most,” said Erica Watkins, 35, whose mom is the grandmother shaking her head at the whole sneaker scene in the convention center. The National Urban League invited families who could use support to the sneaker giveaway as part of their conference, and Watkins, a hairdresser, was glad to get a little help making ends meet.
“So they’re a gift, for a birthday or Christmas. And sometimes we go in on them with other family members,” she said. “And you know what? They take such good care of them. He’s cleaning them. He’s careful about the way he walks. When he gets something he doesn’t like, he’s walking through the mud, whatever.”
Don’t I know it. My son had those Dunks on his feet all year, no need for any other shoes, walking stupidly the first few days to try to avoid the dreaded toe crease over the top.
His brother, who doesn’t give two figs about what brand is on his feet (thank gawd), thinks his brother’s shoe obsession is ridiculous. But that doesn’t make it cheaper. Older brother has foot problems. And shoes that fit his quirky feet are also pricey. That’s the other piece of the shoe crusade. Ill-fitting shoes or hand-me-downs aren’t good for growing feet. Fass curled her fingers up in a ball.
“I remember a kid whose shoes were so small, his toes were curled under like this,” she said. “There are a lot of older NBA players who limp or have injuries now. That’s not about their years in the NBA. That’s about wearing bad shoes when they were growing up.”
Some of these athletes donate to their organization. But most of the Shoes That Fit giveaways happen thanks to donations from the usual pool of dogooders, corporate sponsorships and from some stores that give the group some of their inventory at cost. The big-name sneaker companies that thrive on the hype culture? They don’t help.
That’s who they hope will eventually buy in. Along with the sneakerheads, the stars and influencers who flex their limited-edition sneakers and perpetuate a fashion that seems perpetually inaccessible to kids who worship them.
Kids who got shoes from the organization also showed a 62 percent jump in good behavior, and teachers said they sensed about 75 percent improvement in students’ selfesteem, according to that group’s survey, which was done to answer the first question they get asked by donors: “Why shoes?”
“Listen, there are a lot of problems in the world, in these kids’ worlds, that we can’t solve,” Fass said. “But we can solve this one.”
Most of the Shoes That Fit giveaways happen thanks to donations from the usual pool of do-gooders, corporate sponsorships and from some stores that give the group some of their inventory at cost.