When it’s time for a child’s birthday, we often find ourselves wandering the aisles of a chaotic toy store, searching the shelves for the latest must-have item. But what if instead of getting their hands on the latest gadget, doll or game system, kids were able to gain the knowledge that they can make a difference in the world? The feeling of doing good, of helping others and the chance to flex their altruistic muscles?

Soles4Souls shoe collection
Soles4Souls shoe collection. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Lloyd.

Some kids have taken it upon themselves to forgo typical birthday traditions and do just that. Take 9-year-old Teagan Wigginton, for example. For her ninth birthday, she opted out of the typical wish list and instead asked friends and family to donate gently used shoes. This small gesture — inspired by a documentary on the Disney Channel about another young woman doing the same thing — ballooned to a goal of collecting 25,000 shoes for a nonprofit organization called Soles4Souls.

This organization collects used footwear and distributes it globally to those in need for reuse. It may seem like such an incredibly basic thing, but proper footwear can mean employment, the ability to attend school, and much-needed protection from cuts and potential disease. Not only that, but Soles4Souls takes the charity model one step further and instead of simply providing solutions for obvious symptoms, it attempts to address the root issues in the countries it donates to.

This incredibly worthwhile and sustainable organization caught the interest and fueled the passion of this 9-year-old American girl, and as of late March, Teagan Wigginton had already collected 23,000 shoes. A staggering amount by any measure, but made even more incredible because Teagan is so young. Her impact is incredible. Not only will the lives of 23,000 people be directly impacted because of this 9-year-old, but what effect does an initiative like this have on a young person and those around them? The ability to develop these essential skill sets — the planning, organization, commitment, dedication, collaboration and community-building, not to mention the emotional intelligence of raising your head and recognizing a hurting world around you — is absolutely invaluable.

The ripple effect has an inestimable effect on our world — Teagan was inspired by seeing someone doing something to help, and this made her want to help, too. If we encourage our children to take on big problems in small ways, and if enough people spread the word, the ripples might just be able to reach each and every one of us. One step — one sole — at a time.

Feature image courtesy of Scott Smithson

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.