But his knack for collecting shoes — and then distributing them to the needy — was tested on Jan. 12, 2010, when a 7.0 earthquake leveled Haiti, already considered the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Within hours of the quake, which killed nearly 300,000 people and left millions more seeking makeshift shelters, Elsey reached out to every footwear executive he knew, pleading for massive amounts of goods. He promised Haitian officials that a million pairs would be donated within a year, and also arranged for large containers of emergency supplies, food and water to be shipped into the country.
So far, Soles4Souls has exceeded that initial pledge, handing out 1.1 million pairs of shoes, with another 200,000 to be delivered to Haiti by February.
“We’re seeing a lot of insanity and inhumanity,” Elsey said in May, when Footwear News traveled with the executive on his first trip to Haiti. “It’s really sad.”
Since then, he has visited the Caribbean nation five times. But Elsey said he is growing increasingly frustrated with the limited progress that has been made. Piles of rubble remain. Torn tents provide minimal refuge. Violence is on the rise. And Haiti’s government isn’t doing much to reduce red tape and corruption.
Making matters worse, though, is the recent outbreak of cholera, a disease that began in northwest Haiti and has since spread across most of the country, resulting in hundreds of deaths. “I continue to be discouraged by what’s happening down there,” Elsey said last week. “Only 2 percent of the debris has been removed. There is hardly any clean water. And now disease is spreading.”
For weeks at a time, Elsey has traveled Haiti’s countryside — from potholed Port-au-Prince to the outskirts of Léogâne, the quake’s epicenter — witnessing the horrid living conditions and speaking with newly orphaned children.
But as the situation turns dire, Elsey, who founded Soles4Souls five years ago, is aiming to do more than just hand out shoes. Now he’s using donated footwear to put Haitians to work selling shoes. Elsey said he believes by creating commerce, locals won’t have to travel to the congested capital and will be able to earn money or, at the very least, be in a position to barter.
“On a recent trip I saw Americans’ excess athletic shoes get traded for a goat,” he said. “What we’re doing is offering locals an opportunity to survive.”
Additionally, Soles4Souls is finalizing plans to build long-term housing outside Port-au-Prince, which would entice people to leave behind the crowded tent cities.
The charity tried to offer living arrangements earlier this summer by converting old shipping containers into homes. But they proved too costly to transport, and temperatures inside the metal containers were too high.
Under the revised initiative, Soles4Souls recently secured seven acres of land for building, thanks to a partnership with a local ministry. Elsey said the property could accommodate as many as 50 cement-and-stucco homes, featuring running water and several bedrooms.
“When a disaster strikes, it is critical for organizations from all sectors — corporations, nonprofits, foundations, governments — to band together to create holistic solutions,” said Marilia Bezerra, director of commitments at Clinton Global Initiative, a group formed by President Clinton to bring leaders together to help address global issues. “This is particularly crucial in a country like Haiti. We are pleased that Soles4Souls has committed to partner with other organizations to build homes and help at least 7,000 Haitians access food, water and educational programs.”
While Haiti consumed a majority of Elsey’s focus this year, the organization also has worked to aid individuals closer to its headquarters in Nashville, especially when parts of Tennessee flooded in the spring.
And the group is striving to elevate its public profile as well. It launched Clothes4Souls in February to “give a head-to-toe experience for the hurting,” Elsey said. The goal for the clothing division is to crack $75 million in total donations by the end of 2011.
Soles4Souls, which distributed its 10 millionth pair this year, is also building buzz through a recent alignment with musician and social activist Michael Franti, who decided to go barefoot a decade ago. For fall, the two kicked off a nine-city “Barefoot Concert Series,” part of Franti’s “The Sound of Sunshine Tour,” with the hope of generating 100,000 donated shoes.
“Soles4Souls recognizes that a shoeless person is just part of a larger cycle of poverty,” Franti told FN. “They target natural disasters like Haiti or New Orleans, but also the more than 300 million kids around the world who have never owned a pair of shoes.”