Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
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‘...I am making the world a better place’


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— Have you ever looked in your closet and thought, “I have too many shoes?”

Mike and Tina Solava have experienced that feeling quite often over the past few months. But all that footwear hasn’t been in their closet. It’s been in their garage. And rather than a few extra pairs of worn sneakers, they’re looking at dozens of clear trash bags full of other people’s footwear.

The Solavas transformed the garage of their Seminole home into an unofficial footlocker after their 9-year-old son, Mikey, decided earlier this year he wanted to collect shoes to donate to needy children.

“In late February, he came to me and said, ‘Mom, I know what I want for my birthday and Christmas,’ ” Tina Solava explained. “He said he wanted shoes.

“When I told him we had just bought him shoes he said, ‘No, I want shoes to give to the poor kids in Africa.’ ”

Stunned by their son’s generosity, the Solavas decided to support their middle child’s mission. He told them he got the idea when his mother explained during a family trip to Walt Disney World last fall how rough some kids have it in other parts of the world.

“He started crying when I showed him these photos of underprivileged kids in Africa,” Mikey’s mother recalled. “It really affected him.”

“I want to do as much as I can to help people in the world,” the boy explained.

But what started out as a simple goal of 100 pairs quickly turned into a mountain of Nike, Reebok and adidas styles. The boy’s suggestion led the family to conduct a drive for the national charity Soles4Souls, complete with a new goal for Mikey: 25,000 pairs of shoes.

Soles4Souls collects new and used shoes and clothes to distribute to people in need.

“We got to 100 pairs basically overnight, so we looked into raising the amount,” said Tina Solava, a marketing director for assisted living facilities.

“An online search led us to Soles4Souls, and Mikey saw that if we collected 25,000 pair we could go to Haiti and deliver the shoes in person.”

A few family meetings later, the Solavas were knee deep in New Balance.

By reaching out to everyone he could think of, from his school principal to his karate instructor, Mikey got large groups of people on board to help support his shoe-gathering efforts.

“Mikey’s soccer coach works at a local sporting goods store, so he put a collection box in there,” Tina Solava explained. “And the manager of the Shoe Carnival in St. Pete used to go to our church, so when he heard about it he started a collection drive at his store, offering coupons for every pair people bring in.”

The Solavas estimate they’ve collected roughly 3,200 pairs of sneakers, boots, sandals and other shoes so far, still a far cry from their stated goal.

They plan to continue collecting shoes—new, used and in any condition—until the end of the year, when a friend who’s letting them use his garage for additional storage moves back from out of state.

“If we get 5,000 to 6,000 pairs, I think it will be a success,” said Mike Solava, a graphic artist who’s been driving to shoe pickup spots every Saturday. “Twenty-five thousand is going to be tough, but it’s all about getting the word out.”

But even if they don’t hit that goal, they say the experience already has been invaluable, with the entire family pitching in to help, including Mikey’s older sister, Madison, and even his 3-year-old brother, Matthew.

“When Mikey started to see we could make a difference as a family, he started to light up,” his mother said. “And to see other kids at school and church wanting to help, it’s been amazing.

“Will we make it to 25,000? I don’t know. But when we’re looking back at this experience when he is 25 years old, it will be all about how it shaped him as a man, not how many pairs we collected.”

For his part, Mikey thinks they’ll have no trouble hitting the 25,000-pair mark.

“I think we might get it in August,” he stated confidently. “But even if we don’t, it makes me feel like I am making the world a better place, so it’s been worth it.”

For information on the shoe collection drive, visit Mikey’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/LifesaversSoles4Souls.

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