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Budd Bailey’s Running: How Canisius College puts shoes on thousands of feet

If it’s spring, it must be time for another Shoes for the Shelter 5K race at Canisius College. It’s been a seasonal tradition on the running calendar since 1999.

The event is presented by the college’s Blue and Gold Fund, but it has become associated with shoes. Each year, hundreds of participants go through their closets to find shoes they aren’t using, package them up and bring them to the race.

“It was originally a fundraiser for the cross-country team,” said John Maddock, the associate athletic director at Canisius and the race director. “Sean Muldowney was the primary driver of it. Pat Leone and Joanne York worked on it as well.

“They wanted to find a niche that was different than the others, and came up with the shoes concept.”

The number of shoes donated that first year has been lost to history, but 67 runners took part in the race. Dennis Koch and Joanie Hays were the winners of the 5-kilometer run.

Within a couple of years, the number of donated shoes grew quickly - to the point where they overwhelmed the first beneficiary of the collection drive, the City Mission. However, St. Vincent de Paul was just down the street, and it received the donation.

“The only time we get something bigger than this is if a hotel is remodeling or something, and we get the old furniture,” Mark Zirnheld of St. Vincent de Paul said. “It’s become a spring tradition. It’s been great.”

The donations aren’t restricted to race day. A few people drop off their shoes to Canisius early.

“One year some elementary school girls found out about it, and they brought enough shoes to fill the whole back of a minivan,” Maddock said. “Some years, the athletes really get behind it. I never know where the shoes are coming from. There are often a few thousand pairs of shoes here by the time we’re done. It’s mind-blowing.”

Maddock likes to take a peek at the shoes that are collected by SVDP, which sends a truck to the Koessler Athletic Center for the event.

“There are shoes with 5-inch heels, sneakers - you name it,” he said. “Some are brand new, and others are in plastic shoe boxes. We try to encourage people who bring sneakers to tie the laces together.”

Connecting the shoes in some way, whether it be tying the laces or using a large rubber band, is helpful. You can imagine what might happen when a few thousand shoes are transported together in a truck and then moved into a sorting room. Some of them will become separated from their “partners.”

“We have a young lady, Sharon, who has been working for us for a number of years, and she is a genius at it,” Zirnheld said about the sorting process. “It would drive me crazy. She lays the shoes out, goes through them all, and matches them off. It’s a challenge, but she picks up the gauntlet. We try to process them within a week. That Monday morning, she’s ready to go.”

After a while, the overall totals of donated footwear become staggering. The Shoes for the Shelter race has collected 31,736 pairs of shoes since 2001.

“About 70 percent of them are given to people in need,” Zirnheld said. “There are others who don’t want handouts, especially when they are taking care of their families. So we try to take care of them in a dignified manner. We have really reasonable prices. A mom can come in and buy a pair of shoes for her daughter at a fraction of the usual cost.”

This year’s event is set for April 10. Organizers hope to threaten the record of 4,203 pairs of shoes set in 2013, but each and every pair makes everyone involved feel good.

“It’s really rewarding to see people get involved, and see shoes go to people who need them,” Maddock said. “That’s the neat part.”

Zirnheld added, “I don’t know if the runners can appreciate just how thankful the people are for this. People think about warm clothes like coats for donations. They don’t think about footwear. They take that for granted.

“One time we had a mother come in with a child in slippers, and the slippers were soaked. One of our store managers went back and got new shoes for the child. The mother was crying. We see that more often than not. These generous donations allow us to do things like that throughout the year. We are grateful, and so are the people that come to us for help.”

Race calendar

• Fudd’s Run, 3.2K, Chestnut Ridge Park, Orchard Park, 10 a.m. Saturday, 868-1055.

• Friends of the Night People Putting Hunger on the Run 5K, 320 Porter Ave., Buffalo, 10 a.m. April 3, 884-5375.

• Feel the Spirit 5K, 921 Cleveland Drive, Cheektowaga, 11 a.m. April 9, 380-0231.

• Canisius College Shoes for the Shelter 5K, Koessler Athletic Center at Canisius College, Buffalo, 10 a.m. April 10, 888-2977.