Gotta Have Sole: Teen Non-Profit Entrepreneur Nicholas Lowinger

Monday, January 24, 2011


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It's never too early to do good, and do a great job doing so. Nicholas Lowinger, a 13-year-old middle schooler at the Wheeler School in Providence, has turned a lifelong interest in helping kids in local shelters get new shoes into a vibrant non-profit called Gotta Have Sole.

Gotta Have Sole works with about 15 RI shelters, and has delivered more than 450 pairs of new shoes, sneakers and boots. Shelters use Brannock foot measuring devices to get accurate sizes of clients, then place an order with Lowinger. Within the week, he delivers. This May, Nicholas will be honored by the Women's Center of RI for his work helping their residents.

Nicholas took time out on a busy winter weekend of activities and homework to talk about his passion for helping his fellow RI kids.

What inspired you to found Gotta Have Sole?

I was inspired to do this a long time ago, when I was five. I had gone to a homeless shelter with my mother where she worked and saw so many kids with either shoes that were falling apart or soiled, or without shoes at all. I decided to give them whatever I could, and have been donating my used clothes and shoes to them since then.

On one occasion when I first started donating my things, a small boy took a pair of boots from me that were much too big for him and I felt bad that I didn't have his correct size. I knew at some point in my life that I wanted to give homeless kids new shoes that fit them properly. I am Jewish and when I was nearing my Bar Mitzvah last November, I had to pick a project that would help others. I knew what my project was going be right away, but didn't want there to be a time limit for it, as is the case for most Mitzvah projects. I wanted to be able to continue doing this throughout my lifetime so, after talking it over with my parents, I came up with the name Gotta Have Sole.

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Why is Gotta Have Sole relevant?

Rhode Island is one of the states in the US with the highest homeless population. In 2010, 40 percent of people who were homeless in RI were parents and children. Many of these children were under the age of five. Many families who go to shelters have to leave everything behind and are in need of basic things that we all take for granted.

New shoes are almost never donated to shelters and while used shoes (which are still not donated regularly) are adequate foot covering, they are not always the best fit for someone else. Not to mention that the used shoes might not be in the greatest condition, and why shouldn't someone who is homeless have something new?  It is hard enough to adjust to losing your home and having to live in a shelter. New shoes can make a child feel good about him or herself, and if the kids feel good about themselves, maybe they might do better in school.

You're a teenager. Why, this early in your life, do you feel you should be committing to a project like this?

I think it is very important to give back to your community, especially when it can make someone else's life better. If you start out doing good deeds when you are young, it comes naturally to you when you are older, and maybe other kids can be inspired by your actions. I have committed myself to this project because I see the difference I am making in someone else's life and want to continue to do so.

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What has been the response of your peers to your work? Are they inspired? Intimidated?

I go to the Wheeler School, and at the beginning of the school year, I spoke to my entire Middle School about my work. The support of my project at my school has been incredible. They immediately started a shoe drive which is ongoing and have helped spread the word on their Web site. One of my friends recently told me that It makes him feel proud that one of his best friends is helping out so many needy kids. It has made him think about how he can help other people in need.

I think some kids might feel intimidated by my project maybe because kids sometimes feel they are unable to have a strong voice at a young age or that they can't make a big difference. I think if everyone has a dream no matter what it is, they should follow through with it. Kids can make a HUGE difference in this world!

What do you see as the future of your work in this realm?

I will always continue to donate new footwear to kids in the shelters in RI. My hope is that Gotta Have Sole will reach other states as well. We have been receiving product and monetary donations from corporations and private donors as well (we have raised over $85,000 since last February!) and hopefully, this will grow as we expand.

Nicholas adds: Gotta Have Sole will sponsor a booth at the Community Service Fair at Bryant University on February 2nd where college students can hopefully connect with us. And we are participating in the First Annual Mitzvah Day of Greater RI on March 13th, sponsored by the Jewish Alliance of Greater RI, where community members will be decorating footwear that we will then deliver in the future to the kids in area shelters. With a new Web site in the works, Gotta Have Sole is easily followed currently on Facebook, here.


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