Next Step gives sneakers a second chance

Seeking a hands-on learning opportunity that also benefits the community, students in the multiple-needs classroom at Next Step Transition Center are collecting athletic shoes. The ten students involved, all 18 to 21 years of age, set the goal of amassing at least 2,000 pounds of sneakers before Earth Day, April 22.

Not only are they keeping shoes out of the trash cycle, they're improving a wide range of life skills through the service project.

The effort began with students learning about the footwear worn in locations throughout the globe where shoes are not readily available. Each student fashioned a pair of shoes from plastic bottles and experienced personally the difficulty of maneuvering comfortably with such items.

"Our kids learn best through concrete real-world examples. The plastic bottles allowed them to understand what it would be like to not have shoes and why we are involved with GreenSneakers," explains Denise Caley, a teacher spearheading the project.

Working toward a goal

Students have already collected 78 pairs of shoes -- a little over 100 pounds -- for the GreenSneakers nonprofit organization. Each week students check local collection sites and count and sort the pairs based upon a variety of factors, including style and color. The statistics are recorded by participants in their self-made Green Sneakers booklets and documented on the classroom wall.

"Having a wide range of abilities in our class, it is difficult to find a project where everyone can be involved," says paraprofessional Jill Dvorak. She says benefits range from class discussions to decison-making, tracking progress and meeting long-term goals.

How much is 2,000 pounds? Recognizing the primarily visual and kinesthetic learning styles of those involved, teachers have posted an outline of a Clydesdale horse to chart the gains in pounds of shoes collected each week. By Earth Day, the students hope to have the whole image colored in.

The GreenSneakers organization provides athletic shoes a second chance at life as affordable footwear for people in need. Shoes are distributed to disaster relief areas, as well as through humanitarian efforts in countries around the world, including Brazil, Sudan, Mozambique, and Kazakhstan. The school effort is part of its "EcoChallenge for Education" program.

"I learned about GreenSneakers in 2011 while walking around the Minnesota State Fair and thought it would be fun to participate," Dvorak says. "I was amazed that shoes take anywhere from 50 to 1,000 years to break down in landfalls and instead could be donated and put to good use."

Help fund other activities

GreenSneakers also awards participating schools 50 cents per pound of shoes collected.

"The money earned by our Multiple Needs Classroom will help offset the cost of trips into the community and music therapy for students," Caley notes. "An important part of our program involves students learning from experiences outside the direct classroom."

Next Step has the possibility of earning an even larger sum of money should they collect the most pounds of shoes among participants in the "small school" category. A $5,000 prize is awarded to the sites with the greatest collection efforts.

A total of 68 students are currently enrolled in the Next Step Transition Program. Next Step educates students with a disability who are 16 to 21 years old, have completed the tenth grade without receiving a diploma and who need help with independence and life skills.

Drop sites for the GreenSneaker collection include Castle, Cowern, Skyview, and Webster elementary schools; John Glenn, Maplewood, and Skyview middle schools; North High School; Next Step Transition Center; District 622 Education Center; Lillie Suburban Newspapers; and LA Fitness on Highway 5 in Oakdale.

The class is still seeking additional locations to serve as drop sites; contact Denise Caley at 651-621-1962 for more information.

Rebecca Rowe can be reached at rrowe@lillienews.com.

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