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Volunteer State

Now a year-round, industry-wide initiative, the Two Ten Footwear Foundation’s Footwear Cares volunteering platform continues to gain momentum and substance.

Dig it: Volunteers from Deckers Brands and REI helped California residents clean up after the recent mud slides.

Have you heard? Volunteering is the new black. A growing number of people, especially younger ones, want to take part in community service programs. What’s more, these people want to work for—and buy from—companies with a conscience. Volunteering is even becoming the new golf outing, where employees come together across all levels to do charitable work in their local communities; at the same time, they network and build closer relationships with fellow employees and industry colleagues.

It’s no wonder Footwear Cares, the industry-wide charitable platform launched by Two Ten Foundation six years ago, has seen participation soar in the number and range of events as well as the number of overall participants. Since the beginning of this April alone, footwear employee volunteers have dedicated more that 3,300 hours of their time to help non-profit organizations within their local communities, including food banks, homeless shelters, Ronald McDonald Houses, meal delivery services, AIDS walks, park cleanups, Habitat for Humanity builds and donation warehouses. The volunteerism has directly impacted more than 3,100 children and 3,250 families, provided 33,750 meals and sorted tens of thousands of pounds of food. According to the Independent Sector, with each volunteer spending on average three hours per shift and valued at $24.69 an hour, footwear employees contributed in excess of $81,000 worth of time to these charities during the month—all thanks to Footwear Cares. What began as a day of volunteering quickly moved to a month of events each April and now is a year-round program.

“We’re thrilled that it’s caught on,” says Neal Newman, president of Two Ten. “The idea was to whet the appetite, and the response was superb. There’s been so much interest in community service and volunteerism, and we’re happy to support companies of all sizes as well as individuals in their volunteer efforts.”

Newman wants the industry to see Footwear Cares as a seamless facilitator to community service—a portal that offers instruction on how to get involved, how to sponsor an event and, most of all, how to volunteer. It’s easy. Just log onto twoten.org/get-involved/footwear-cares/ to learn all about Footwear Cares, and you’re a click or two away from a rewarding day of volunteering.

Quanda Contreras, who works in EDI/systems support tech for Deer Stags and has been an active Footwear Cares participant since the beginning, partnered with Two Ten’s Maureen Rubino, marketing & special events manager, to make the site as inviting as possible. The duo had started working on the expanded site about a year ago and one of the first steps was to create a list of local volunteering projects that people could sign up for directly as individuals. “It’s a database where individuals can search for projects that interest them and they sign up on their own time.,” Contreras says. “It’s not overwhelming or intimidating, and they don’t have to wait for a company-planned event.” Some people, she adds, prefer a more intimate type of volunteering. “Not everybody is a big group kind of person,” she says. “Having access to volunteering on your own schedule or with a close associate is wonderful.”

The People You Serve

Employees of Shoes.com, title sponsor of Footwear Cares, on the steps of the Massachusetts State House, displaying its donation of 344 pairs to The Children’s Trust in support of victims of child abuse and neglect.

When Eric Schapero, owner of Zapatos in Everett, MA, decided he wanted to give back to Two Ten—an organization that provided assistance to his off-price store a few years back—the eblasts about upcoming Footwear Cares events in the area caught his attention. He and his young part-time employee chose to spend a day helping to box donated children’s clothing and supplies for the non-profit Cradles to Crayons. “I’d been thinking a lot about Two Ten and wanted to contribute in some way,” he says. “It was exactly what I was looking to do.”

Schapero was already familiar with Cradles to Crayons, having dropped off a donation himself about a month earlier. The familiarity didn’t stop there. “Many of our customers are the same mothers and kids that Cradles to Crayons is putting stuff in the bag for,” he says. “They’re also the same people going to the local food bank.” It’s why volunteering at Cradles to Crayons struck an even deeper chord with Schapero. “These are people I deal with on a daily basis,” he says. “Unlike, perhaps, someone who works in a corporate office or is a marketing rep on the road, I knew exactly who I was helping.”

Schapero believes that even though team Zapatos was only two-person strong (large groups from Clarks and New Balance were also on hand), their day of volunteering delivered big returns. “I’m a little niche player, but I’m very committed to the footwear industry,” he says. “I wanted to give back, as well as have some fun.” In regards to the latter, Schapero says a photo of his employee taking part in the day’s event is worth its weight in gold. “I just look at that smile on his face and knew he had a great time,” he says. “For me, that was hugely rewarding.”

The Ultimate Happy Pill

Anyone can be a volunteer. Anyone! You don’t have to be athletic, a certain size or possess specific skills. Volunteering is gender neutral and ageless. There are no income level requirements. It can be done indoors or outside, on-site or off, in small groups or large, and pretty much whenever is convenient. The range of charitable organizations and the activities to partake in listed on the Footwear Cares site are as broad as are the needs. Soup kitchens, food banks, homeless shelters, Habit for Humanity sites, neighborhood green spaces, schools and in-office collection drives all serve as possibilities.

They’re all good—just like how nearly all participants report that volunteering is good for the mind, body and soul. It’s the ultimate happy pill with long-lasting effects. “Even a week after the event our volunteers were still smiling and talking about it,” says Trisha Sweeney, executive vice president merchandising of Shoes.com, the title sponsor of Footwear Cares. For the second year running, the online retailer supported The Children’s Trust, a Massachusetts non-profit supporting victims of child abuse and neglect. Shoes.com donated 344 pairs of shoes, which represented the 688 confirmed cases of neglect or abuse in the state every week. “It was a powerful statement as the shoes were laid out on the Statehouse steps in Boston,” Sweeney says. “It showed how important this cause is.” Beyond feeling good about making a donation, Sweeney say hearing stories from parents and children about how the Children’s Trust helped save their lives made a lasting impression. “It shows that real change can be made by supporting a charity like this, and that just made everybody very happy,” she says. “It’s just a really warm feeling.” You can’t put a price tag on it, either. “It feels 1,000 times better to actually be there than just writing a check,” Sweeney says. “There’s no comparing the two.”

Newman concurs on volunteering’s feel good quotient: “There are loads of studies that show when you volunteer as a group, you come back happy. You return with a little more spring in your step. You tested yourself and developed a sense of purpose in your skill set.”

Peer Pleasure

The networking opportunity volunteering offers might be the biggest side benefit, according to many Footwear Cares participants. Everybody checks their business card at the door. CEOs and VPs work side-by-side with entry-level employees, and those in divisions that rarely come in contact with one another can find themselves on the same work detail crew. “A lower-level employee and a VP working on same project can have a discussion that wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Contreras. “Plus, it’s a case of, “I got blisters packing soups at God’s Love We Deliver just like my boss did.’ When you’re able to see each other as just people, the closeness helps people work better together.”

Newman cites a recent Footwear Cares event involving employees of Deckers Brands and REI as an example of great networking. The volunteers helped clean public areas after the recent California mud slides, which was dirty, hard work. “The relationships made between Deckers and REI wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” he says, adding that it was two customers both helping their target customer. It was a win-win-win scenario.  “All we heard was how overjoyed everyone was by spending a few hours to make life better for those residents,” he adds.

Joanne Tucker, operations manager for Topline, says the biggest takeaway from its annual Footwear Cares day at Northwest Harvest food bank was the opportunity for its 45 associates to work together in a different way than they do daily in the office. “It’s not just about socializing, they’re having fun and building teamwork for a good cause,” she says. However, Tucker notes the most rewarding part of this year’s effort didn’t involve a Topline employee. It was meeting a woman in her 70s who stops by the food bank every day to work a shift. “She wasn’t part of Footwear Cares or even the industry,” Tucker says. The women’s positive attitude in helping her community was inspiring. “We volunteer at the food bank once a year, but there are great people like her who volunteer on a regular basis,” she says. That doesn’t mean Topline’s team didn’t make a difference. With assembly-line precision, the team scooped, measured, packed and shipped thousands of pounds of rice during its shift. “We repackage it into family-size portions,” Tucker says. For those counting, it was 5,376 pounds of rice into 4,135 meals for Seattle-area families in need.

Networking was also a highlight for NPD Group’s 14 volunteers who prepped meals at God’s Love We Deliver, a nonprofit dedicated to helping those living with serious illnesses in the New York metro area by alleviating hunger and malnutrition. Sarah Bloch, NPD’s executive director of footwear and accessories and a member of Two Ten’s newly established Associate Board, says the company’s second year participating in Footwear Cares was a joy from start to finish. Employees interacted with each other as well as vendor partners. “I know it’s hard to get out of the office sometimes, but Footwear Cares brought us a renewed sense of not only accomplishment but gratitude for each other and helping others,” she says, noting they were joined by employees of Kenneth Cole Productions. “They weren’t the people we usually interact with, so it was nice to partner with them in a different way,” she adds.

Like everyone, Bloch’s team donned gloves, aprons and (unfashionable) hair nets and huddled around four tables filling and sealing soup containers. Over the course of the afternoon, the group packed 2,500 individual containers and chopped large tubs of vegetables for the next day’s soup. “It was really tiring but rewarding,” she says. “My legs hurt at the end of the day, but the people we’re helping are living with life-altering illnesses, and that puts everything into perspective. The sense of mission and purpose brought us together and gave us a great feeling.”

With the help of Two Ten Connect, a service that offers updates on the latest news and updates about the organization, Bloch aims to increase NPD’s involvement in Footwear Cares nationwide, perhaps enlisting its sports and sports footwear sectors next year. “We’re passionate about the mission of Two Ten,” she says. “We’ve been in the industry for many years, and as a culture we’re in a critical time where companies need to go beyond the business case and embrace the moral case.”

Unity in the Age of Discord

Zappos employees volunteering at its annual “Operation Prom Closet” that donates dresses, shoes and accessories to more than 2,000 low-income students in the Las Vegas valley.

Blame President Trump or thank him. Take your pick as many experts cite the heightened state of national discord—and the president deemed a flash point—as fueling a backlash in the form of community service. There are additional factors driving people to seek out a greater purpose, according to Newman. “We don’t know our neighbors as well, people are becoming more isolated, entertainment is in their hands, there’s a lot less opportunity for group activities and socially, racially and gender diverse moments in our lives,” he says. “I believe Footwear Cares has tapped into a moment in our country’s and our personal lives that is helping us look at the meaning of who we are and the reward that we feel and higher purpose served when we help others.”

It’s why Two Ten expects Footwear Cares to continue to gain momentum in the years ahead. “Events happening year-round,” Newman says. “Some are more outdoor-oriented, and they are picking up from April through September. The list this year includes Habitat for Humanity home builds with Shoe Carnival and Marc Fisher, Skechers working again with the Compton Initiative, which is a terrific organization, and BBC Intl. doing three events.” Newman adds, “We’re also tapping into what companies are already doing, seeing how they can possibly collaborate with some of their vendor partners at an event.”

Year-round volunteering is exactly how Topline rolls. Every month a group of its employees visits the Seattle Ronald McDonald House to serve meals. The company also hosts an annual toy drive for the charity. In addition, Topline’s entertainment committee hosted a spirit week which culminated in a winter clothing and food drive. The company also donates shoes to Mary’s Place, a shelter for homeless families, and encourages employees to take part in No Shave November to benefit colon cancer research. “When people are passionate about a certain charity, they should feel like they can help,” Tucker says. “We encourage them to send a company email to get people’s support.”

Sweeney says Shoes.com is also ramping up its own volunteering efforts throughout the year and, as title sponsor, helping organize major events across the country. “The goal is to have at least one major event quarterly,” she says. “We’re working with the Footwear Cares committee on a volunteer field day event with the Boys and Girls Club of Charlestown this summer.” (It’s the home of Shoes.com new Massachusetts-based headquarters.)

Members of Chinese Laundry, UBM and Seychelles box food for donation at the L.A. Food Bank.

Ditto for Deer Stags: More volunteer events are being planned for the end of summer and fall, reports Contreras. Last year, the company held donation drives for Why Not Care that collects and distributes donations for people in need. “We donated shoes so boys at a local high school could attend their prom in appropriate clothing,” she says. “And for Father’s Day, we gathered items from our homes—ties, shaving equipment, etc.—and put together care packs for a local homeless shelter.”

Same goes for Zapatos. Schapero says it’s the least he or anyone can do. “Footwear Cares is a great idea,” he says. “I see lots of ads asking for help for people overseas, but we also have a lot of people in our own cities who need assistance.” It’s too easy not to volunteer, he adds. “To take a morning off to volunteer at Cradles to Crayons, a local food bank or wherever, is easy to do. While it may be easier to write a check, the people who really care are the ones who get up and do it.”

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