Marine veteran collects hundreds of shoes to help Penn Hills students
Leonard Hammonds II's game room mirrors a department store shoe section these days, but don't mistake him for a hoarder.
The shoes in Hammonds' basement flow out just as easily as they flood in, finding a place on the feet of Penn Hills students in need.
“I've seen the need in the community and I believe that a confident child is a successful child,” said Hammonds, a Penn Hills YMCA board member. “Shoes are things that a lot of kids get bullied or teased about.
“If these kids are distracted or being bullied they can't focus on what's important, and that's their academic success. If we eliminate those barriers we empower the student and if we empower the student they are able to do what they need to do.”
Just two months ago, Hammonds started Strides of Confidence, a program to put brand new or gently used donated shoes on the feet of kids who need them. Since the program's start, Hammonds has received an estimated 600 pairs. He began accepting adult shoes at the beginning of the year, and hopes to extend Strides of Confidence to all ages, with the goal of raising 1,000 pairs by March.
“First and foremost, my heart is with the youth,” Hammonds said. “I live right here in Penn Hills and I want to make sure these kids are taken care of.”
Donation boxes are at eight businesses in Penn Hills and its surrounding neighborhoods. Social media has been a help, as people have contacted him via the internet to lend their support.
Hammonds, a 1994 Penn Hills High School graduate, initially reached out to school board member Denise Graham-Shealey with his idea for Strides of Confidence. Hammonds, Graham-Shealey, schools Superintendent Nancy Hines and the district's three social workers met to discuss the need for such a program.
And there is a need, Graham-Shealey said.
“I firmly believe that in order to educate, all needs have to be met and sometimes (families) can't do that,” she said. “As a school district we see that and we can't turn a blind eye.”
But sometimes shoes are hard to come by, according to Penn Hills Elementary School social worker Aaron Smith.
“I know that when families seek us out and are in need of help, we are able to give supplies through other initiatives,” Smith said. “But one thing that is hard to get our hands on is shoes, and really good shoes, not just shoes to put on.”
So Hammonds and social workers Smith, Kyoko Henson and Ben Miller are calling specifically on the Penn Hills community to make it happen.
“Oftentimes the school institution gets separated from the community,” said Henson, who works at Linton Middle School. “I think this is one way to break down the wall so the community has a place in our building to raise a child together.”
Strides of Confidence stems from the Hammonds Initiative, a program the former Marine started in October with a “reach and teach” initiative for Penn Hills youth.
Hammonds took children to African-American films to educate them on their culture through entertainment. What started as a few students attending a movie turned into an entire theater rented out, filled with kids enjoying popcorn.
“Who would I be if I see a need within the community and leave it unaddressed?” Hammonds said. “No one is going to ask you to help the community. You have to take the initiative to go out there and do what's necessary.”
Christine Manganas is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.