The Right Fit With Dignity: Robin Telfian’s Nonprofit Gives Shoes to Those in Need

Surrounded by shoes, a woman cleans a pair

Robin Telfian is the founder of Shood, a Richmond, VA, nonprofit that collects gently worn shoes and distributes them to locals in need, free of charge. But Shood doesn’t just give shoes away. They create a mini shoe store experience. Guests are welcomed, their feet are measured, and they get to “shop” with a range of choices. Telfian notes how important properly fitting footwear is, as many people who experience homelessness spend all day on their feet.

Telfian partnered with Jeff Wells, owner of two area Fleet Feet stores, to collect shoes and fit guests. Since they started in April 2017, they have given over 4,000 pairs of shoes to Richmond residents in need.

How Shood started

According to Shood’s website, one in four Richmond residents lives in poverty. The Daily Press reports that 549 people sleep outdoors or in shelters in Richmond. For the homeless and individuals in need, shoes and socks are often the items they need most. Ill-fitting shoes, dirty socks and poor foot hygiene lead to pain and lower leg infections.

Telfian came up with the idea for the program while volunteering at the Red Door Soup Kitchen. “I volunteer on the floor because I love to talk to everybody,” says Telfian. “You become friends with the guests that come in.”

One morning, while serving in her running gear, a regular named David asked her what happens to runners' shoes after a big race. His shoes were full of holes, almost in pieces.

It was a “lightbulb” moment for Telfian.. She realized that many runners discard their shoes when they are no longer good for running or racing, but still perfectly adequate for walking.

She began to research the idea to see if any local organization provided used running shoes for people like David. She couldn’t find anything consistent. She asked her running friends what they do with their shoes when they wear out. Most didn’t know what to do with them.

Robin Telfian smiles and runs with her dog

Fleet Feet gets involved

Determined to pursue the idea, Telfian needed a strategy and location to collect runners’ gently used shoes. That’s when she met Jeff Wells, owner of two Fleet Feet locations in the Richmond area.

Telfian says that Wells let her put donation boxes in his stores. Then, they took it a step further. “I told him I want to put shoes on feet, and I want to make sure that they fit,” Telfian says. “And he held his hand out and said, ‘let’s do it!’”

Wells’s stores collected donated shoes to an international program that distributed them in developing countries before Shood came along. “But Shood gave us an opportunity to collect the shoes and to truly help the less-fortunate of our immediate community,” says Wells. “And that makes it even more rewarding.”

Telfian cleans a pair of shoes for the Shood program

Getting the shoes ready

Shoes are collected for free, but sorting them takes work. Telfian says they have high standards for the shoes that go to the Shoe Share fittings as she calls them. After they collect the shoes, she and a team of volunteers take them to a storage area for sorting.

“We only pick shoes for our Shoe Shares that are in good condition,” she says. “Good tread, no holes, no tears. We have volunteers that clean them, organize them by size, and tie them up.”

When they receive shoes that are generally in good shape but don’t fit their criteria, they often donate them to another local nonprofit who can help others in need.

Creating a mini shoe store

Shood hosts roughly 10 shoe fittings per year. Currently, they rotate between five or six locations, many of which are churches with a connection to the community in need. Fittings are scheduled to coincide with the church's soup kitchen hour so that guests arrive on the scene, are served lunch and then go through Shood’s set-up to get fit for shoes.

Volunteers arrive early to set up and organize the shoes. Men's shoes in one area, women's shoes in another, arranged by size.

“We love giving everyone a selection like a mini shoe store,” Telfian says.

Guests check in at the receiving table to get a ticket. Then they are fit for the correct size of shoes. Wells measures feet and explains the importance of having a properly-sized shoe. “Many of them have foot issues, most occurring from wearing improperly fitted footwear,” he says.

Then, a volunteer takes them "shopping" to choose their shoe. Chairs are available for them to sit down, put on their shoes to check for fit and comfort, all while the volunteer is there to assist them.

Telfian says that the most powerful aspect of the program is the connection that it creates between people. “Our guests often feel invisible, unloved and unwanted,” she says. “We want people to come in and feel totally cared for and to be comfortable and happy.”

Shood’s reach

Telfian’s goal is to take care of the entire city and give away all the shoes they receive.

“The more shoes we have, the more we can grow and give away,” she says.

Shood is steadily finding more programs to partner with. Last year they started working with a men’s drug recovery program in Richmond called The Healing Place. A group of men in recovery there run the Monument 10K, and Shood provides participants with the right shoes for the event, as well as socks and foot care bags. Before Shood, many of the runners were wearing shoes that were ill-fitting or too worn out.

They also partner with teams at John Marshall High School, where 96 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, and many of the students have inadequate running shoes. Their cross country coach contacted Shood to arrange a fit experience. Shood delivered for the 25 young runners so that they had 200 pairs of good shoes to choose from.

“It was such a special moment when we went to their high school and did that,” says Telfian. A month later, she received a call from the same coach to see if she could help with their needs for indoor track. Shood came through with running shoes, track spikes and a pair of throwing shoes for the athletes.

After that, four of the athletes from John Marshall High School qualified for their state meet. They got second place at the indoor state championships. Telfian says, “It feels like we’re part of that.”

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