by Lynn Colburn
On Friday, September 29, students from various schools in District 117 took buses to ShopKo and went to the Payless Shoe Store inside. They were entertained by a comedic rapper from Los Angeles, told about the foundation that was helping them that day, and then each student went with a personal shopper who assisted them with picking out the perfect new pair of shoes and socks for school. Students were from North, Lincoln, and Washington Elementary schools, Jacksonville Middle School, and Jacksonville High School. There were a 193 who received shoes and socks, some of whom couldn’t be there that day so personal shoppers picked special shoes for each of them.
The day was a culmination of a year of events which all started with a question about glue and tape and a teacher who was alerted to a need in the area. “During school one-day early last year,” said Jane Gibbons, the media specialist at North Elementary School, “a little girl came up to me and asked if I had any glue or tape. Then after I gave her some tape, she asked if she could go to the bathroom. As she was walking away, I noticed the sole of her shoe was flopping as she walked.”
That made Gibbons start thinking and she mentioned to her friend, Laura Sellers, that she couldn’t believe how many children lack shoes that fit them adequately or whose shoes were in terrible shape. She wished she could help them all. Sellers told Gibbons about a friend who ran the Share the Spirit Foundation. She explained to Gibbons that the foundation helped children in need get new shoes. It did seem like a perfect fit.
Gibbons contacted Tonya Voepel, president and co-founder of Share the Spirit Foundation.
Tonya Voepel, a graphic designer and owner of Voepel Publication Services, Inc. in Springfield, started Share the Spirt Foundation with her sister-in-law Karen Voepel, whose family runs a family farm and ranch in Colorado. In 2002, they walked in the Avon Breast Cancer 3-day-walk, raising money and awareness for breast cancer. After receiving tremendous support, motivation and spirit from friends and family, they decided they wanted to continue to help meet a need in some way. The following year, “Share the Spirit” was born when a teacher mentioned kids in schools needing shoes. Since launching Share the Spirit Foundation, they have been able to help more than 10,000 kids find shoes, not only in Illinois and Colorado, but other states as well.
The idea of the Share the Spirit Foundation is to let the kids pick out their own new pair of shoes. Voepel says it might take a child a while to pick out their shoes. “They go through the store and look at all the options, but when they pick them out, we feel they must love their shoes.”
When recipients finish picking out their shoes and are invested in the program, they fill out “Spirit Cards.” On the cards, they are asked to write down “how are you going to pay it forward?” It’s not a monetary thing, it is how they can help someone else. Kids have said, “be nice to my grandma” or “give someone a compliment” or “be nice to someone.” Voepel says it makes them think.
Julie Weichert, who is on the fundraising committee, is a volunteer shopper at events (including Jacksonville) and helps buy shoes for the Shoes Clozet in Springfield, explains, “we believe in global citizenry – helping everywhere. Everyone can make a difference by effecting just one child. Our board members are all active at events.”
Voepel’s kids and those of her board help as personal shoppers at events. She says, “it helps the younger generation learn the value of volunteering and to become aware of the needs in the community.”
Payless Shoe Store also gives Share the Spirit Foundation a discount on shoes so its dollars go further. The cost of an average pair shoe shoes is approximately $25 with the discount. In fact, one of the personal shoppers in Jacksonville was Jason Tatman, District Manager from Payless ShoeSource®.
Voepel has a big heart and you can tell she would like to help everyone, everywhere, with every need that comes before her. Weichert said, “if there is a need Tonya will help. She went to help after Hurricane Katrina – twice.”
Voepel illuminates further, “When I meet someone in need, I always says, ‘Come here and tell me your story.’” She said she was driving along and a man was asking for money on a corner. She stopped, got out of her car and asked for his story. After he told her his story, she asked him if he could use some new shoes. When he said yes, she took him to the Shoes Clozet (another initiative of the Share the Spirit Foundation which is housed at Contact Ministries in Springfield) and got him some shoes.
Voepel says, “Share the Spirit had been to Jacksonville once before to help Garrison School and Rhonda Massey, but we were looking to get back here.” She credits Jane Gibbons, not only with making the connection through two mutual friends, but with the persistence in pushing for the program. “She was instrumental in putting a program together in Jacksonville,” insisted Voepel.
After contacting Voepel, Gibbons went to North Principal Lezlie Fuhr and they talked about how the need went further than just North school. “So, we contacted Amy Albers, executive director of the Jacksonville Public Schools Foundation, so we could meet as much need possible in the district. Shoes are such a basic need, but many students don’t even come to school with many of their basic needs met,” explains Gibbons.
Jacksonville students were encouraged by the personal shoppers to get closed toed shoes that could be used in school as well as physical education, but choices remained in students’ hands. The principals and teachers, who know the children in their schools the best, worked with the district to find the families with the most need. When leaving one girl, who took a little extra time picking out just to right shoe, replied that she was overwhelmed because this was the first time in her 15 years of life she had ever picked out new shoes.
Kirk Sells, who goes by his stage name ‘White Chedda’, also came in from Los Angeles to participate. Kirk, who is comedian and rapper, and is an after-school music educator in Compton, California where he teaches kids to rap. He has seen first-hand how a simple program can turn a child’s life around. It was during his 29-day “Walk Intta Chicago,” advocating for non-profits to work together, that he met Voepel. On Day 12, he was at the Springfield Farmer’s Market talking about his mission wearing walking sandals when he heard behind him, “you need a new pair of shoes.” He turned around and there was Voepel. The next day she brought him new walking shoes and a great partnership was made.
Although he has helped at fundraisers, this was his first Shoes for Kids event. Sells was also a natural fit in Jacksonville. As White Chedda, he entertained the students making them laugh, smile and clap with a rap about the use of cell phones. He even invited some of the students show him a little of their own rap style. After the younger students selected and put on their new shoes, Sells took the group on their first walk up and down the parking lot. He changed the rap he did with the high school students and got them to laugh, even when they said they wouldn’t. Sells helped some students as a personal shopper and talked to most of the others. After the high school group finished, Sells talked to a JHS educator about putting together an afterschool rap program at JHS in the future.
Share the Spirit Foundation raises the money for these events through its signature fundraisers are called “Sip and Savor.” It holds Springfield’s Sip and Savor every year on the second Saturday in April. The next will be Saturday, April 14, 2018, so go and bring friends to help this cause. The Foundation also holds a similar event every other year in Lamar, Colorado and there was also a fundraiser in Naperville, Illinois recently.
In addition to Share the Spirit Foundation, local businesses and individuals who donated to the Shoes for Kids in Jacksonville include: Farmers State Bank and Trust Company; Rammelkamp, Bradney Law Offices; Morgan County Housing Authority, Jane Hadden, Brad Wilson, Amy Jackson and Richard Freeman.
Share the Spirit is a small organization with a big heart, that reaches out to those in need through programs such as the Shoes for Kids, Looking Glass Project, the Shoe Clozet, the Shoe Cruizer and the Next Step program. You can find out more about the organization online at http://www.sharethespirit.info. Voepel says all donations go to the shoes, the Foundation is made up entirely of volunteers.
The Share the Spirit Foundation’s logo quotes Cinderella saying, “One pair of shoes can change a life.” The immense smiles on the Jacksonville students’ faces as looked for the shoes, then showed off their choices said it all. In addition, every student promised to pay this act of kindness forward in their own unique way.