New Shoes Provided!

Who You Walkin’ With?

by Debby Rehn

Wholly Kicks is a non-profit that walks with those in Aurora and Denver who are experiencing homelessness and economic disparity. You may or may not be familiar with the organization, but I would like to introduce you from my perspective. I am a part-time volunteer who knew nothing of Wholly Kicks a year ago but have since gained a new outlook on walking with those who society tends to cast aside.

Meeting Wholly Kicks

It was a September morning in 2020 and the world had become quite accustomed to life online. I logged into a virtual church service with Epiphany Lutheran in Denver and listened intently to a guest give the sermon. This animated man was fumbling with Zoom all while oozing passion over everything he talked about, including immersing himself in a neighborhood where bullets had recently flown on his street. I would learn his name was Tyger, or “Tyg,” and that he is an ELCA pastor who now serves a congregation of people who have experienced massive trauma, and his sanctuary is the street. As an aside, I would like to clarify the word “trauma” since physical injury is what comes to mind for most. It is also defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.Tyg proceeded to talk about Wholly Kicks, a non-profit he founded and runs as the Executive Director. I am a runner, so I fully understand the importance of sturdy athletic shoes, but that was not what prompted me to reach out to him in the upcoming weeks. It was his enthusiasm, authenticity, and vulnerability. Tyg was essentially saying, “I’m here doing this work and I don’t always know what I’m doing but I know it’s important.” Sold. I was in between jobs with some time to give and knew I had some skills that could help Tyg with advancing Wholly Kicks. We met for coffee in October so I could learn more about Wholly Kicks and Tyg could learn more about me. I recall sharing with him that I was unsure how to act around those living outside in Denver. He provided some insight from the perspective of his “street friends” as he calls them. I walked away that morning with some notes, a few tasks, and wrestling with altering the stereotypes my brain had held for, well, a lifetime.

Diving In

I quickly realized how excited I was to put my non-profit experience to good use in helping a newer, smaller organization gain efficiencies. We decided it would be beneficial for me to volunteer at an event to see first-hand how things worked. On a sunny Sunday in October, I drove north on Federal Boulevard to attend my first Kicks event. Tyg had warned me that things can get a little chaotic. This particular event was in conjunction with free haircuts at a barbershop. We set up on the sidewalk to the left of the shop entrance with folks grilling hamburgers to provide on the other side. The music was loud and the vibe positive. Everyone turned out to be quite orderly, and the event was over before I knew it. My fellow volunteers were a mix of income-stable folks like me, and those who had experienced a rougher past. One man had served time in a prison near where I was raised and joked that we used to be neighbors! A funny thing happens when you stop making snap judgments about a person’s appearance, history, or current situation, and start listening—you discover the humanity. We were winding down the event and invited to have a burger from the grill. I didn’t show up that day expecting to be fed but would soon learn that’s a common theme in volunteering for Wholly Kicks—come expecting to give; walk away filled with more than you knew you needed.

More Than Just Shoes

Wholly Kicks provides a new pair of shoes to someone in need, but I slowly discovered that is only a part of the mission. One of Tyg’s street friends conceived the idea of Christmas in the Park where Wholly Kicks could get shoes to an Aurora neighborhood in need. Over 300 shoes were distributed that frigid December day because Tyg listened to and believed in someone most would not. That is a unique characteristic—the people Wholly Kicks serve are also leaders within the organization. They are leaders who have experienced immense trauma. They are leaders who value taking care of others walking the same path they have walked. They are leaders who mentor each other. Merriam-Webster defines a leader simply as a “person who leads.” It does not say anything about income, assets, or education. I might add one word to that definition as it pertains to Wholly Kicks, a “whole person who leads.”

Early on, Tyg had explained to me that the people Wholly Kicks serves are used to being in the system and having to jump through hoops to get anything. That day at the park, mothers showed up with birth certificates to prove they had children in need of shoes, but they had not wanted to bring them out in the elements. My eyes watered as I assured them we would get them shoes for their babies. Some of the kids that did show up that winter day had their socked feet shoved into summer flip flops, if they even had socks. At a more recent event, a lady picking up shoes for her children quietly pulled me aside and asked if she could take a pair for her sister who lived on the street. She quickly selected a plain, black pair of sturdy shoes and thanked me profusely. Wholly Kicks recognizes what the system does not—policy is slow-going; love is instant. Offering a simple pair of shoes with no strings attached except the laces demonstrates love. Those shoes, and the opportunity to distribute them, are an avenue to show others that they are loved, they matter, and they are worth it.

It Takes an Army

From buying and collecting to prepping and distributing, the number of volunteers it takes to get shoes on feet is more than it may appear. Shoe prep can be tedious work—removing packaging and tags, marking the size, adjoining the shoes, tagging them with a color-coded clip, and placing them in the correct bin. For Tyg, it is just another opportunity to introduce groups to the Kicks’ mission! It might be groups looking for an opportunity to volunteer or it could be a friend from the street offering help in exchange for a hot shower. But mostly Tyg’s street friends are volunteering for Wholly Kicks because they have been shown love, respect, and have been asked to lead. Volunteers continue to develop tools for efficient communication with partners. Local shoe stores have become familiar with the mission and try to help shoe buyers anyway they can. People from previous chapters of Tyg’s life have shown up at events ready to serve.

It has been a joy for me to meet a few of the Aurora Public School liaisons. They have a strong love for their neighborhood and the students in their school. In both Aurora Public Schools and Denver Public Schools, the number of children on free and reduced lunch is over 60%. As more schools and partner non-profits learn about Wholly Kicks, new events are continuously being added to the calendar. Wholly Kicks aims to set up other partners for success by empowering them to empower the people they serve. In some instances, Wholly Kicks is serving as a silent partner. A community where everyone feels loved and knows they matter is going to be a better place for everyone to live.

New Relationships

The number of new friendships I have formed since becoming involved with Wholly Kicks ranks high on my list of gratitudes. I recall that initial conversation with Tyg about my hesitancy to interact with people living on the street. Fast forward to an April 2021 event and I got to hug a new friend goodbye before leaving, a friend who has gone from homeless and addicted to housed and sober. At that same event, I got to meet another friend’s mother and tell her what a great son she has; how he has consistently shown up to hand out shoes for Wholly Kicks despite his own struggles. I have been the recipient of unsolicited hugs by young Kickers receiving shoes at events. “If you meet one person experiencing homelessness, you’ve met one person,” Tyg explains. Everyone has their own story. I feel incredibly blessed to know these new friends and neighbors. I extend an invitation to you: come walk with us!

Keep on Walkin’

Recently Wholly Kicks handed out its 2,000th shoe. That is 2,000 Coloradans that have been shown love because so many have cared enough to donate time, shoes, or money to the organization. It really can be as simple as a pair of shoes sometimes. Yet other times it will take more. Much more. Showing our neighbors that they matter and are loved is not a one-time deal. There will be good days when they are clear-headed, working alongside me passing out shoes, and it is easy to show them love. But there will also be times when they may be under the influence of a substance or neglect to show up for a commitment. Can I still show love and tell them that they matter? It is not an easy walk and one that has no end in sight. But from my perspective, for change to happen, we must start talking (and walking) with those different from us. Taking my cues from Wholly Kicks, I am ready to wear my soles thin trying.

There are a variety of ways you can partner with Wholly Kicks:

  • Reflect on who you are walking alongside in life. Or who has walked with you?
  • If you need someone to walk with, you can walk with the Wholly Kicks team! They are always looking for a diverse group of volunteers to spread love and there is a place for YOU.
  • Host a shoe drive in your community.
  • Provide financial support for Wholly Kicks to purchase shoes. The average cost of a pair of shoes is around $20.

Most importantly, you can smile and acknowledge someone on a different path than you. In a text exchange with Tyg he wrote, “Community and love are the things I think worth pursuing.” I joked that we should print that on a t-shirt. Thanks to my involvement with Wholly Kicks, it’s imprinted on my heart.