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July 1, 2013
Growing up in Philadelphia took a certain amount of moxie and a steel spine. It wasn't a place for a weak will, especially on the basketball courts where Dawn Staley began to learn the craft that would take her to the University of Virginia, to three Olympics and eventually to the coaching chair at South Carolina.
But Staley and the children-to-teens that would fight for playing time on the courts found a source of confidence that came from much more than how many points and rebounds they could produce. It didn't matter what they wore to school from the ankles up - if their feet were encased in some snazzy sneakers, they were the envy of the schoolyard and they could forget their surroundings for at least a little while.
"It was something that made me feel really good about myself," Staley said last week. "I could walk a little higher, walk with my head up, knowing what was on my feet. That's the neighborhood I grew up in. That's what we wanted, and didn't really care what we looked like from our ankles up as long as we had a nice fresh pair of sneakers on."
Thinking about that, and recently talking with a friend of hers about having brand-new pairs of sneakers in the closet and nothing to do with them, the idea came naturally. Staley decided to help Columbia children, and hopefully see the idea spread farther, with a donated piece of confidence.
"It's something that when I was growing up that I could really identify with - new sneakers," Staley said. "To think about kids not having that, not being able to experience that, when you think about it, it's kind of disheartening. I wanted to be part of kids experiencing that feeling."
Staley's new initiative, Innersole, is designed to put a new pair of sneakers on children's feet in time for the new school year. Partnering with Healthy Learners, which helps around 600-800 Richland and Lexington county students receive medical care, Innersole will identify needy children and supply them with a brand-new pair of shoes.
Thus far, the program has received around 400 donated pairs of sneakers and around $2,000 worth of monetary donations, from regular citizens to Staley's friends and colleagues in the basketball world. Georgia coach Andy Landers, Auburn coach Terri Williams-Flournoy, Arkansas' Tom Collen and the WNBA's Tina Thompson and Tamika Catchings each donated to the cause, and Staley recently received a shipment from the San Antonio Spurs.
Staley is hoping that the children who receive a pair of shoes will feel better about themselves by sporting a shiny set of kicks to school. It always worked for her.
"I'm in sneakers 90 percent of my life, I have been and will be. Probably the percentage is a lot higher than 90 percent," Staley said. "I think it does affect your confidence level, your self-esteem, your ability to concentrate in school. I think some of it has a play on whether or not you fit in in the crowd with people who wear nice sneakers.
"People, if you're somewhat like me, my eyes are drawn to the shoes, not necessarily what they're wearing from their ankles up. It's only fitting for me to be passionate about this organization."
When she was growing up, Staley naturally had her heart set on a specific pair of sneakers. Not the Air Jordans that were starting to add to Nike's empire, not the burgeoning Reeboks, not the classic canvas Chuck Taylor All Stars. Shoot, they weren't even basketball shoes.
"I wanted, they were adidas, they were Ivan Lendl's," Staley said. "These shoes were like a hundred bucks (Click). I had to have them. I never got them until I was much older and they were out of style. But I just really had to get them, and I ended up getting them. Ivan Lendl was one of my favorite tennis players and I saw the kind of sneakers he wore, and could never afford them."
Staley, who called herself a "sneakerhead," said that she mostly wanted to wear non-basketball sneakers around school and town, since she spent so much of her life on the court in basketball shoes. The Lendls, and later on the Ellesse brand promoted by Maurice Cheeks (Click), where what she wanted and eventually got, although it took a few years.
Now she wants to give back. Co-founder Rene McCall-Flint was cleaning out her closet and had boxes of new sneakers that she wasn't going to wear; Staley, who had been looking for a charity to get behind, had a brainchild.
"I like to do that from the heart, and I can be passionate about it," Staley said. "The response has been great. Everybody can relate to it, what sneakers or shoes meant to them. Everybody, from the people here in Columbia to nationally, have been re-Tweeting, they've congratulated, they've sent people to our sites through Twitter and through Facebook. It's really been a huge outpour of support for it."
Innersole just had its first shoe drive, from June 17-20, where the first big shipment of new sneakers arrived. They've continued to pour in; Columbia mayor Steve Benjamin even contributed.
"We always have to remember that there is always someone in need and there are always people who are blessed to help," Benjamin told media during the drive. "I count myself amongst the blessed and as long as there is strength in my bones and air in my lungs, we're going to share."
Staley is hoping that the organization continues to receive sneakers and money to grow the project, so no child goes without new shoes. Healthy Learners helps with a database so nobody takes advantage of the giving, and as basketball season begins, Staley can lean on McCall-Flint and Angela O'Neal to help run Innersole.
"I think this is going to be huge," Staley said. "Probably going to be much more than I can handle, quite honestly. We haven't reached out to big sponsors because we're still organizing for the big hit."
Yet, she's ready for when Innersole is reaching nationwide. Staley would love to see a child going to school one day in a pair of those Lendls that she had to have when she was little.
"It always made me feel good to have new sneakers on," Staley said. "When I was growing up, I could really identify with new sneakers. That's what we want others to feel."
For more information or to donate, visit innersole.org
South Carolina NEWS