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By Max Chwatko

Photography by Justin Negard

Imagine walking down a busy city street, the hurried pace of life engulfs you as you navigate through throngs of people. Amidst the loud noises and bustling crowds of people, you catch a glimpse of a homeless person, their shabby shoes a stark reminder of their plight. Would you be indifferent to the person’s evident suffering, or would you feel compelled to extend a helping hand? 

When an 11-year-old Abigail Charles first moved to Bedford, she experienced something similar. For her, it wasn’t even a question. At that young age, her empathy blossomed, and her mission was born. 

If the shoe fits

“My dad and I were walking on the street when we came across an unhoused woman living right here in Bedford,” remembers Charles, now 18 and a senior at Fox Lane High School. “The first thing I noticed were her worn and tattered shoes. We decided to stop and talk to her. She was really nice and really interesting, but obviously struggling, so we went home and got a pair of my dad’s old work boots for her.” 

Charles was taken by the woman’s gratitude, and an idea began to form.

“Later that night, we talked about the interaction,” says Charles. “Everyone has a story, and everyone deserves something as simple as a pair of shoes. It was so easy; this simple gesture had a really big impact on her, and it made me think about how many other people we can help.” 

Charles quickly learned how a good, well-fitting pair of shoes can give a person dignity and confidence. Plus, sturdy footwear is essential for protection, comfort and mobility. She began to think about the fact that many people dispose of perfectly good shoes because they have outgrown them or they are out of style. 

Charles wanted to offer a solution that benefits everyone. She coined her project Covering Soles, and it began with a simple mission: to provide adequate footwear for people who need it.

Getting her feet wet 

Charles held her very first shoe drive in 2017.  

“I had no idea what would happen,” she recalls. “But we collected enough shoes to fill multiple barrels that were almost taller than me!”  

Next, it was time to find a place to donate. Charles’ local church had a  connection to a children’s home in Haiti. And, as it happens, Haiti is where both of Charles’ parents were born. It was perfect. 

“The director of the home sent a video of the kids after they received the shoes, and they were literally jumping up and down,” she remembers. “It really touched me. Shoes are something I certainly take for granted, but for them, shoes were such a wonderful gift.” 

To date, Covering Soles has collected and donated over 500 pairs of shoes through eight drives. 

After the organization’s second drive in 2020, they expanded to collect articles of clothing. That tally is now over 1,000 garments. Shoes, however, are still the main focus.

To increase community involvement, Covering Soles has partnered with local businesses,  schools and churches to serve as collection points.

Big shoes to fill

Charles says her dad has played a pivotal role in Covering Soles; he supported her vision and helped her organize the idea.

“Without him pushing me to bring it to life and guiding me through the process, I don’t know if it would have gotten to this point,” she says. “If he hadn’t stopped with me that day and shown me not to judge people and look beyond the surface, Covering Soles would never have happened. His involvement makes it even more meaningful.” 

She also credits her father with instilling a passion for giving back at an early age. Her family has long volunteered at their church, homeless shelter and storm relief organizations. 

With the help of her dad, Charles recently incorporated Covering Soles. 

“This is the first step of making my organization legit, instead of something that I run out of my backyard,” she says. “This means we can begin accepting financial donations and working with organizations in an official capacity.” 

Her next steps

Charles aspires to partner with local businesses, especially stores that sell shoes as she’d like them to give her shoes that are about to be discarded. 

Her advice for people who want to start volunteering or starting initiatives?  

“Just go for it,” she exclaims. “I truly did not think that I would be able to make a difference, and this has gone much further than I ever expected. If you are truly passionate about an idea you think can help people, it’s that easy–just go for it!” 

“Through simple actions,” she continues, “you can make such a great impact on somebody’s life. By being just a little bit selfless you can make a lasting difference in the world.” 

Covering Soles appreciates financial and physical (shoes, clothing) donations. You can also volunteer to collect or sort through shoes during a drive. The next drive will run throughout the month of May at Cafe 117 in Bedford Hills. Charles says all shoes donated should have no holes, no obvious signs of damage or extreme wear, and preferably not too dirty. 

This article was published in the May/June 2024 edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Max Chwatko