State College

Chris Rosenblum: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church tends to soles of local children

Eligible children can receive free sneakers every three months for those younger than 3 and then every six months until they’re 18 at the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church Shoe Bank.
Eligible children can receive free sneakers every three months for those younger than 3 and then every six months until they’re 18 at the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church Shoe Bank. For the CDT

Usually, banks extend cheery invitations to set up accounts and make deposits.

But on Saturday morning in downtown State College, Jan Becker brightly ushered in a customer for a withdrawal.

“I think you need some new shoes,” she said to an 11-year-old girl in a red plaid coat.

Into the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church Shoe Bank they went, entering a room with shelves full of new colorful sneakers and winter boots waiting for pairs of young feet.

Becker coordinates the shoe bank, now in its 24th year in the basement of the Wesley Student Center building next to the church. Eligible children can receive free sneakers every three months for those under 3 and then every six months until they’re 18. Boots are available during the winter on a first-come basis.

All it takes is a medical assistance card or a referral slip from a local social services agency, and a child walks away with the thrill of wearing fresh kicks.

“It’s wonderful,” said the grandmother of the plaid-coated girl. “I put my children in the program. Now it’s my grandbabies.”

There’s more in the hallway outside Room 107. Donated, gently used adult footwear line wire shelves, with enough variety to satisfy a shoe store manager — men’s dress shoes, trail boots, loafers, sandals, flats, high heels, even pumps, all free for the taking to both clients and the public.

In addition, volunteers encourage children to peruse the bank’s well-stocked book collection and take home a title or two. Each child also receives a pair of socks, either white or fancy colors, their choice.

Everything is available 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays year-round except for after Thanksgiving and between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

“I think it’s just really nice for a young child to come in and be able to leave with a new pair of shoes — not a hand-me-down pair, or a scuffed pair, but a brand-new pair that they enjoy wearing,” Becker said.

“You can just tell by the kids’ faces that they feel good about having them.”

In 1991, church volunteers started the shoe bank as a ministry after recognizing a need at the Park Forest Day Nursery. Originally, the bank offered only used sneakers, but today, the shelves display spotless pairs in sizes from infant to 15, bought with St. Paul’s funds and community donations.

Last year, the bank served 268 children, handing out about 400 pairs of shoes. More than the bank’s 22 regular volunteers support the program. Pine Grove Mills Presbyterian Church congregation members collected most of the bank’s current stocks of socks and mittens. Knitters at St. Paul’s donated hats and scarves — both free like everything else.

Volunteers throw in measuring as well.

The bank keeps a record of shoe sizes so that when children return, volunteers can start with a half-size larger. Sometimes, feet have jumped two sizes. It can take a while to arrive at the ideal fit.

Then comes the trickier part: choosing the right style.

Slowly, carefully, Miss Plaid Coat examined the 81/2 girls’ sneaker selections. A snazzy blue and pink pair caught her eye — love at first sight. Her heart seemed set, but at her grandmother’s and Becker’s urging, she tried on another color combo in 8, her size coming in, just to be sure.

“We’re not letting you out of here with a pair that doesn’t fit, just so you know,” Becker said.

The girl was sure. Blue and pink went back on her feet.

“They’re good?” Becker said. “Do you see anything else? Not really?”

But Becker, a former local special education teacher, wasn’t through.

“There you go, my dear,” she said, bagging the sneakers and socks. “Do you want to go pick out some books?”

On busy days, especially before school starts in the fall, the books come in handy. As many as 40 families might stop by during the three hours, sometimes creating a backlog. While waiting in the hallway, children can pass the time reading.

Those mornings, the already cozy bank becomes smaller. Volunteers must maintain a brisk pace — kids in chairs, shoes on feet, families out the door.

Saturday, with only two visits in the first two hours, unfolded more leisurely. Becker and volunteer Susan Jones could be chatty. A mother signing in with her four children ages 4, 8, 11 and 13 remarked that it wasn’t the easiest trip.

“It’s always nice not to come in, but we’re happy to be here for you,” Becker said.

“I’m glad you are,” the mom replied.

Then it was time to get down to business in the bank.

“I’ll take two at a time,” Becker said. “Who wants to go first?”

Eventually, after much deliberation and several exploratory steps, everyone was content. The 8-year-old boy was so enamored with dark gray sneakers trimmed in orange the shade of his T-shirt, he wore them home.

“Those are awesome, bro,” his older brother said.

Their 11-year-old sister also gave her approval: “They completely match your outfit.”

Before leaving, the quartet added boots — the 4-year-old girl following her brother’s example and leaving them on — and books. Becker liked that the girl readily accepted the offer to pick out a couple of stories.

“There’s a girl out of my own heart,” she said.

Some time in the not-too-distant future, Room 107 won’t bring smiles any more. Nobody will walk away with a bouncier step.

The aging building needs to be replaced, and when that shoe drops, Becker and company will have to relocate. She’ll make sure it happens so that a tradition, and a treasure, continues.

Take it to the bank.

“We’ll find a spot,” she said. “It might not be ideal, but we’ll find a spot.”