Imagine that the only pair of sneakers you own, the pair that you wear almost every day, is worn out beyond repair - and to make matters worse, money is so tight that you can't afford to buy a new pair.
Shoe Express, held on the first and third Saturdays of the month at the West End Christian Community Center, 901 Diamond St. in the city's West End, helps to make sure that children never face such a dire situation.
The program offers two pairs of new sneakers per year to children, from infants to 17 years old, who have either an Access card, CHIP card or referral from a social service agency.
Inset, volunteers with the program line up near the shelves. Bottom, co-chairs Nancy and Rick Jacobs show examples of the wide range of shoe sizes the Shoe Express program offers.
The process for starting such a program the Williamsport area began two years ago, when Marge Thompson, director of the center, was talking with Craig Seasholtz, who helms a similar program in Jersey Shore called Shoes for Shore.
"It's a wonderful program, and there's definitely a need for it," Thompson said. "That's why we wanted to bring it here."
Thompson got the ball rolling by submitting an application for grant money through the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church, and although it took a few months before all of the paperwork was completed and had gone through the proper channels, eventually the center was awarded a grant of $5,000.
The next step, Thompson said, was finding someone to chair the program and take on the responsibilities.
"We were a little apprehensive at first," Rick Jacobs, co-chair, said, "but we did it to serve the Lord."
Rick and his wife, Nancy, agreed to chair the project, and that's when the real work began: finding volunteers, getting the word out about the program, and buying the shoes themselves, something that has to be done at least once a month, with the program giving out roughly 35 pairs every two weeks.
"We do the (shoe) shopping whenever we have time," mostly in the evenings when Nancy, who is a school teacher, gets home, Rick said. And although they do some of the shopping online, they do most of it on their own at local stores in trips that can take up to three hours each.
The local businesses that help with the program have offered "phenomenal help," Thompson said.
"One of the businesses actually allowed us to purchase sneakers from the reduced rack for $5 a pair," she said. "We purchased about 80 pairs that night to begin our inventory."
The buying process itself can be complicated, Thompson said, because they try to find styles that children will want, but the program's funds limit them to paying between $10 and $15 per pair.
"Like buyers for stores, we've become more observant of the shoes that children are wearing," Nancy said. Still, when they display the shoes on the shelves during program days, they often end up tying the pairs together by the laces instead of leaving them in the boxes, since the sneakers they think are nice "are typically not the children's first choice."
Each pair of sneakers also comes with a pair of socks, most of which have been donated, Rick said. The children take the socks home with them regardless of whether they find a pair of sneakers that fit.
It's all been worth it, Thompson said, noting that the program has been "very warmly welcomed" in the area. Since the program's first day of operation in September of 2013, nearly 300 pairs of shoes have been given to local children, Rick said.
Nancy sees the good that the program does every time she's there.
"The majority of children receiving shoes ... are thankful for their new sneakers, frequently rewarding us with huge smiles," she said.
"It doesn't just benefit the children," Thompson said. "It also helps the parents make better choices with their money, having that much more to spend on food or clothes if they don't have to worry about buying a pair of sneakers."