Smiley Movement logo

When he was 5 years old, this man started helping the homeless

Words by Abi Scaife

From an early age, Nick Lowinger's parents wanted to make sure he was under no illusions about the state of the world - that not everyone was as lucky as he was to grow up in a family with enough money.

“My mom was an art therapist, and had been doing work in a homeless shelter in Rhode Island,” says Nick. “She wanted to take me there so I could see poverty in our own community and start building empathy at a young age.

“I saw kids who were just like me running around, playing … but they were barefoot or wearing shoes that were falling apart. It totally blew my mind [that] especially in a country like the US, there could be that level of poverty.”

Determined to help, even at five years old, Nick began donating his own items to the shelter - used clothes, shoes, and more. But, being so young he could only help those around the same age as him.

“I knew at some point I wanted to make sure that every kid could have the new things they deserved – specifically with footwear because that was such a big, eye-opening thing for me.”

By the time Nick turned 12, he'd already made the decision that he wanted to help give back - so for the community project associated with his Bar Mitzvah, he began collecting shoes to donate back to homeless shelters. It is this project that, very quickly, blossomed into the not-for-profit organisation Gotta Have Sole.

Gotta Have Sole connects with homeless shelters across the US, helping to provide the children living there with good quality shoes that fit. This helps them blossom in school, and in their relationships, as well as allowing them to just run around and be children, the way they need to be.

13 years since his Bar Mitzvah project, things are still ticking over smoothly. Nick has been to University, earned his degree and, with help from his parents, was able to keep Gotta Have Sole going through the duration.

“It's been more than half my life that I've committed to this and it's a very special thing to be involved with still,” admits Nick. “I never imagined it would grow to what it's grown to be. We were just supporting, eight shelters in Rhode Island our first year and now we have 210 shelter partners throughout the country. From 400 kids our first year, we've helped over 109,000 kids so far.

“It's really been beautiful to see what it's grown into and the impact we've been able to continue making.”

Nick and his team are based in Rhode Island, though they are connected with shelters across the United States. People working in these shelters will take measurements, which are passed back to Gotta Have Sole, who can then find the right shoes for each child.

“The personalised portion is a really big part of what we try to do,” explains Nick. “Whenever we're able to donate in person, that means the most to us - but more importantly it means the kids really put a face together with the act. It's not just dropping off a box.”

As well as the in-person delivery, the kids also get a postcard in their shoe box, to add a really personal touch to the process. Through his time with Gotta Have Sole, Nick realised that many of the things people donated to homeless shelters were used, abused and discarded and that it would affect the self-esteem of the children living there. 

To that end, he began including personalised, decorated cards in with the shoes - so that each child got a pair of shoes, and a postcard too. 

“As we progressed on this journey, I started realising the importance of really personalising what we did,” explains Nick. “We literally have four or five-year-olds decorating these cards up through people in their 80s. So every type of person could get involved that way and it was a really rewarding way for our volunteers to engage.”

More than anything, Nick wants to impress upon everyone - from his volunteers to the kids in the shelters that receive shoes – that they can live their life to do good.

“It's really important to me to live a purpose-led life and show even the kids in the shelters that anybody with a dream can try and pursue that dream and make a difference in the world,” says Nick. “Whether it's the most lucrative path … it doesn't really matter. I think when you're doing something that doesn't feel like work because it's a passion … that's the dream in life.”

If you want to help Nick and Gotta Have Sole, you can do so by donating online, decorating a postcard, or by getting involved in one of their fundraisers.

This article aligns with the UN SDGs No Poverty, Reduced Inequalities.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs

You might also like…