Log on to the Soles4Souls 25K Shoe Drive page on Facebook, and you’ll find a picture of a smiling seventh grader—surrounded by more shoes that one could fit into a seriously shoe-crazy fashionista’s closet. Sneakers, penny loafers, flip-flops, boots: What’s this all about?
It all began when Zachary Miller, now 12 years old and a seventh grader at Pond Road Middle School, was 10. As his mom, Wendy Miller, said, “My other son [Jared, who is now 16] was doing his bar mitzvah project at the time, collecting tennis equipment for kids in need. We have always donated clothes and shoes to Soles4Souls and after looking at the website one day, I showed the kids the videos from the site.”
Zach remembers the videos well.
“There were kids on streets with no shoes, no socks, walking on dirt and debris. It made me really sad. Even though it was three years away, I decided that was going to be my bar mitzvah project.”
Wendy remembers how passionate he was at the time, and said, “I had to remind him, laughing, ‘Can’t we get through Jared’s Bar Mitzvah first? Yours isn’t for another three years.’”
Fast forward to January 2019. Zach was ready to dive into his Soles4Souls—a nonprofit organization based in Tennessee that provides, among other things, clothing and shoes around the world to those in need—initiative, so the first thing the family did was to meet with Lizzy Ann Swiderski, the regional donation manager for Soles4Souls in New Jersey, who they had first spoken to in October 2018. In April 2019, Soles4Souls put out a press release about Zachary’s project.
As a result, Robbinsville Councilman Dan Schuberth reached out to the family to offer his support, helping them enormously with businesses they could reach out to. “He helped a lot too, with publicizing the event, and Zach also got to meet [councilpeople] Ron Witt and Chris Ciaccio,” Wendy said.
Their first big event was a pop-up shoe drive at the Robbinsville Police Department in June of 2019. The buildup to the event apparently garnered so much buzz, Zachary wound up on television, being interviewed for “Good Day” on Fox 29 Philadelphia on June 8, the day before.
That day, Zach, with Lizzy Ann Swiderski co-hosting, collected nearly 500 pairs of shoes.
“It was a very grassroots effort at the time, mostly Robbinsville residents,” Wendy said. “We advertised around town with flyers, the town did a newsfeed on its website. But I do remember one person saying she drove 45 minutes to come, because she had heard about it on Fox Philadelphia.”
Zach and company went around to local businesses, restaurants and coffee shops, asking if they could place a box in their stores for collections. “I also went to where I play tennis, and asked them to put boxes out, too,” Zach said.
Retailers and restaurants alike responded with great enthusiasm, and Zach’s shoe collection began to grow. “Places like Starbucks, KinderCare and Friendly’s Ice Cream in Robbinsville have all been terrifically supportive,” Wendy said.
Other places include 3 B’s Fine Furniture Consignment in Trenton (191 pairs), All For Dance in Robbinsville (222 pairs), the Robbinsville Senior Center (303 pairs) and the Robbinsville Municipal Building (294 pairs).
There have been truly unforgettable highlights along the way as well—one came this past August.
“We contacted a woman who helped us get a table outside the Trenton Thunder stadium on Good Deeds Day,” Zach said, but Wendy interjected, “they liked the idea of what he was doing so much, they decided to give him his own day.”
So, on Aug. 31, Zach set up shop at the stadium, and wound up collecting 454 pairs of shoes. “We were able to say that if you bring a pair of shoes you get a certain prize.” One pair of shoes got someone an invite to watching the fireworks on the field that night; two pairs got you the fireworks and a ticket to the Thunder’s home playoff game on Sept. 6, and three pairs got you all of that, plus a food voucher for a hot dog, popcorn and soda.
Another special moment took place at the Robbinsville Friendly’s, when Zach was given the “Acts of Friendly’sness” award by owner Lee Paroly and manager Geri Petito, given to people who have contributed to the community in distinct ways. The award includes a party for 20 people at Friendly’s.
As businesses got more and more involved and the word spread, the Miller family decided to start posting info about the drive on social media.
“It was important that we had a place where we could credit all the businesses helping us out, and thank them,” Wendy said.
They started a Facebook page in September of last year.
“A lot more people started to see it,” Zach said. “We also have an Instagram page. We now go to a business and take a picture, and then post it to Facebook and Instagram, thanking them for helping out, and putting the countdown on how many shoes they collected.”
Scan the website and you’ll see posts like a shout-out to the Mercedes-Benz Learning and Performance Center, who collected shoes and helped Zach with loading, transporting and unloading at the Soles4Souls storage unit, or a thank you to Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo and his staff for supporting the effort.
Other events Zach has been involved with include the Black Friday Fun Run this past Nov. 29 for the Special Olympics of New Jersey and a 5K in Robbinsville, where he set up his table and donation box for both events. To date, Zach and his “team” have boxes in over 70 locations, and Zach has been part of multiple community events. The roster of donation sites includes not only Robbinsville but East Windsor, Princeton, Edison, Eatontown, Hopewell, West Long Branch along with other New Jersey towns, and in Pennsylvania, places including Emmaus, Exton and Yardley.
All these efforts just keep bringing more and more shoes, but there is a solid system in place. The businesses call, email or text Wendy when their boxes become full.
“Once we collect the shoes from each place, we bring them home, band them together, count them and put them in large garbage bags,” Zach said. “Those go on a truck that go to a big storage unit in Bordentown,” which holds shoes from all the donors in Lizzy’s territory. Once that unit gets full, which happens about every other month, volunteers unload the storage unit into a truck and transport the shoes to the North Jersey warehouse. From there, the shoes get processed and distributed internationally, to places including Haiti, Honduras, Africa and other developing nations.
As of the writing of this article, Zach has collected over 12,311 pairs of shoes. “The goal [before his Bar Mitzvah on June 6] is 25,000,” which brings him to just about half. But regardless of the final outcome, Zach said, “I’m really glad I picked this project. I go to school, play different sports, and have all kinds of activities in my daily life. And you can’t really do any of that without shoes. And some people have none. So I knew this was a really good choice.”