updated 03/26/2014 AT 10:00 AM ET
•originally published 03/27/2014 AT 6:15 PM ET
Laid off from her job at a grocery store just before Thanksgiving, Brittany Taylor, 28, and her children John, 7, and Johneya, 5, soon found themselves at a homeless shelter in frosty Providence, R.I.
Among needs the shelter couldn’t fulfill were children’s shoes. With a snowy winter approaching, Johneya only had flat, ballet-style shoes that were peeling, and John’s sneakers were dirty and worn out.
Within days, however, the children were handed new sneakers and new winter boots by local teen Nicholas Lowinger, whose Gotta Have Sole foundation has distributed nearly 16,000 pairs of shoes in 32 states.
“It definitely made me happy to see my children in a better mood, and it took a little stress off of me,” Taylor says. “It warmed my heart.”
Nicholas, 16, says his interest in helping homeless children started at age 5, when his parents took him to visit a homeless shelter. His excitement over a new pair of shoes with lights turned to sympathy for children who barely had anything to wear.
“I couldn t imagine how some kids were unable to make it to school because their shoes were falling apart,” Nicholas says.
Nicholas started donating his outgrown shoes to shelters, but realized it’s uncomfortable to wear shoes broken in by someone else. For a community-service project tied to his bar mitzvah four years ago, he created a project to donate new shoes to homeless children, and what started as one bin in one temple dedicated to one shelter has grown into a national operation with several shoe retailers (including 6pm, Timberland, Stride Rite and Walmart) as sponsors.
A Homespun Operation
Although the base of the operation is the Lowinger family garage in Cranston, R.I., the effort is extremely well-organized. Shelters turn in orders for shoes, and Lowinger and his volunteers fill them using shoes provided by sponsors. If he doesn’t have the right shoes handy, Nicholas will buy them, using donations. If the shelters are local, Nicholas will hand out the shoes in person.
The gift packages include socks and messages personally written by Nicholas on cards shaped like shoes, saying things like, “This is a gift because you’re worthy.”
Nicholas says he’s “trying to also change people s mindsets about homeless people, that they’re just people who have fallen on hard times.”
Lori Lowinger says she’s blown away by her son’s service to others.
“I look at this young man here whose heart is bigger than anything I’ve seen,” she tells PEOPLE. “He’s changed who I am as a person.”
Stepping Things Up
Gotta Have Sole has chapters in Florida, Connecticut, Massachusetts and South Carolina, with a rotating roster of roughly 2,000 volunteers participating at any given time.
Rachael Kaplan, 38, is one of several moms in Rhode Island who bring their children to Nicholas’s home to volunteer. Her daughter, Madelyn, was 6 the first time she volunteered (she’s now 9 and still volunteers), and Kaplan wanted to “teach her to feel lucky with what she has.” They picked up one of the many orders sent to Gotta Have Sole, had Madelyn buy shoes that her family paid for, and brought the shoes to Nicholas, who explained what he was trying to do. Madelyn also helped design and write several cards.
“Through opportunities like that, we are becoming better people,” Kaplan says.
In February 2014, Nicholas received a Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness Award, named after one of the children killed in the Newtown shootings.
As he accepted the award, Nicholas told the crowd: “I just have a challenge to all of you to find some way to be a kinder person or be a peacemaker, and make the world a better place. I think there’s a peacemaker in all of us.”
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