For the seventh and what may be the last year, volunteers with Footwear for Families gathered at the Wings of Alaska hangar on Saturday to prepare to send shoes and boots to needy people in Southeast.
"I think we have a minimum of $20,000 worth of footwear, on a retail basis," said Ray Vidic, who started the Footwear for Families program in 1997, using his own funds to buy 20 pairs of boots at Kmart.
Eventually, he solicited donations from Juneau's three Rotary clubs and from businesses and individuals, and the program has grown each year. This year, the clubs donated $500 each.
When Kmart announced it was closing its stores in Alaska this spring, Vidic jumped on the chance to get as many shoes as possible at close-out prices, he said.
"This year we were really blessed with Kmart's closing," he said. "I was able to get rock bottom prices - almost 1,000 pairs of shoes, and they're all brand-new."
But the blessing was a mixed one. Kmart consistently provided inexpensive new shoes for the program to distribute. Without a similar source of shoes in Juneau, the program likely will not continue next year, Vidic said.
This year the volunteers will distribute the boots to the AWARE shelter, the Glory Hole and the Family Resource Center in Juneau, as well as to community organizations in Kake, Angoon, Hoonah, Haines, Yakutat and Wrangell.
"I work with smaller communities in particular and they have a really soft spot in my heart," said Debbi Howard, who has worked for Footwear for Families both as a volunteer and as an employee of Catholic Community Service, under which the program has its nonprofit status.
People who live in subsistence communities have hard decisions to make about where they spend their money, Howard said. Providing shoes means they can make other important purchases.
"I'm always so impressed that they are able to survive in these communities," she said. "... I admire their spirit and their strength of character."
Vidic, Howard, members of Howard's family and Kmart employees spent a day last spring bagging up the 1,000 pairs of shoes. Volunteers from the Rotary clubs divided the shoes Saturday by destination. Wings of Alaska, Alaska Airlines and LAB Flying Service will deliver the shoes to outlying communities before Thanksgiving.
Vidic estimates that about 50 volunteers distribute the shoes.
"The beauty of what this is and why it works is everybody feels the mission, they all feel good about what they're doing. They're helping others," Vidic said.
The Salvation Army in Wrangell will be eagerly awaiting the delivery, said Nancy Hegre, captain of the Salvation Army there.
"It's a wonderful program," she said. "I couldn't tell you how wonderful it is, it just touched so many lives."
Wrangell received shoes and boots under the program for the first time last winter. The 90 pairs were distributed to seniors and children, Hegre said.
"There's one senior who I told her she needed to come because she was always complaining about how she couldn't go outside because it was so slippery," she said. "I brought her down to try on some boots and we found her a pair and she was really excited because she said she could walk outside and stay safe."
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.