George Esquivel has lots of shoe stories, but they aren’t all about the famous rock stars or wealthy pro athletes who pay more than $800 for styles from his eponymous line. His most colorful tale happened when, as a young boy, he watched his father walk into a store wearing old, beat-up shoes and then leave minutes later in a new, stolen pair.
The designer’s hardscrabble upbringing — living in a string of sketchy motels, often going to bed hungry and coping with a drug-addicted father in and out of prison — helped him realize early on that he wanted a different life.
“I knew my life sucked back then,” said Esquivel, “but I’m so thankful I was lucky enough to break out of that mold.”
Now, the 42-year-old designer, whose collection of handcrafted shoes is thriving and who earlier this year was named creative director of luggage brand Tumi, spreads the message of hope and self-determination to people who are struggling as he did.
Esquivel, based in Cypress, Calif., works with a local faith-based charity that feeds roughly 6,000 homeless elementary school-age children each week. The program, called Giving Children Hope/We’ve Got Your Back, delivers backpacks every Friday filled with enough food to help the kids survive the weekend. (During the week, most of the children receive free breakfast and lunch at school.) On average, the organization doles out 93,000 pounds of food per month, serving 47 schools in 13 nearby cities.
Esquivel, who shuttled between a dozen different schools as a youth, read a news story about the organization four years ago. The group’s crusade — and some of what he called “incredibly heartbreaking” stories — served as fuel for his new passion.
“I remember, when we lived in motels, what it was like to not have food on the weekend,” Esquivel recalled. “I also remember times when my father would come home high and eat what little food we had because he had the munchies.”
The designer — along with his wife, daughter and other relatives — regularly fills the backpacks with canned goods and other nutritional items. Then they deliver them to schools. He also organizes special fundraising projects, such as having celebrities like New York Knick Tyson Chandler sign shoes for auction. But Esquivel said his biggest contribution is giving motivational speeches to the kids and classroom teachers.
“I try to show them you can make it out of the motels. You can have a life after welfare and food stamps,” he said. “Even with a dad on drugs and in prison, they can make it.”
Years earlier, Esquivel gave similar speeches to incarcerated youth. Often he told compelling stories about personal hardships and disappointments. As much as it helped him connect with inmates, it also was a cathartic experience. The designer talked about his father taking him to steal his first bike. And about how, at 19, he had problems with the IRS because the elder Esquivel used his children’s social security numbers to collect unemployment in multiple counties.
Now the designer aims to do much more than just provide uplifting pep talks.
Sean Lawrence, executive director of Giving Children Hope, said that in addition to continually devising new ways to raise money — the group spends $31,000 a month to feed families — Esquivel serves as a real example of someone who rose from the streets.
“George is a success story,” said Lawrence, who met the designer a decade earlier when they started talking about bad church music. “What he and his siblings have done is the end result for all these kids. The same hotels we serve are the ones George grew up in.”
While Esquivel inspires others to beat the odds, he too has gained something from volunteering — personally and professionally.
He said that working with homeless people reminds him to never forget where he came from. It also makes him appreciate the life he has built, in which his three children don’t have to worry about their next meals.
“All of this drives me a little bit harder in my business,” Esquivel said. “It also makes me realize how good my life is. The more successful I am, the more I’ll be able to spread the message and help the kids.”