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Potawatomi member's Foster Feet helps others walk easier

Paige Willett
Citizen Potawatomi Nation Public Information Department

Children in the foster care system often arrive at their new foster home with everything they own in one trash bag, usually just a few pieces of clothing. During the winter, they sometimes receive donated coats, but shoes are often not as easily secured. As children outgrow them at an extremely rapid pace, many foster children only own shoes too small for them.

Tribal member and Oklahoma State University student Lauren Anderson took matters into her own hands to help others in worn out or ill-fitting shoes and started the nonprofit Foster Feet. Anderson’s maternal grandmother and Tribal member donated the first pair of shoes to Foster Feet. Based out of Enid, Oklahoma, the organization collects and distributes new pairs of shoes to children across Garfield County.

Foster Feet gained nonprofit status in 2015 when she was a high school sophomore at Oklahoma Bible Academy. To date, the institution has handed out more than 3,000 pairs of shoes and has grown from serving kids in the foster system to anyone in need, mostly through its annual back-to-school shoe drive.

“It’s really crazy,” Anderson said. “I forget sometimes that Foster Feet has not been around very long. The organization has been such a huge part of my life.”

The Ford family descendant serves as the founder and president of the organization. When she started college, others throughout her community became board members and volunteered to fill requests and plan events.

“I feel really humbled by being able to say that I started this, but it is honestly not just my work,” she said. “It’s the board members and the community that really took it on, and I myself could not do it alone.”

Foster Feet receives requests every week via social media or email.

Pink boots

At the end of Anderson’s freshman year in high school, one of her teachers became a foster parent. Anderson met the 5-year-old girl, who arrived at her new foster home with few possessions and only one pair of shoes.

“What surprised me most was that she wore these bright pink, nice pair of boots, but they were two sizes too small. I believe it was June, and they were thick winter boots,” Anderson said.

“(My teacher) told me the story about how she took her foster child to Payless (ShoeSource), and she told her she could pick out any shoes she wanted. She picked out these light-up tennis shoes and just spent an hour running around the store because she was so excited to have a pair of her own.”

Anderson wondered if this commonly occurred among foster kids, and she visited the Oklahoma Department of Human Services office of Garfield County to find out. She quickly noticed a shortage of shoes and clothing.

“There’s really no inventory for when a kid comes into the system for them to be able to have their own bag of items,” Anderson said. “They showed me their storage, and there was probably about four or five pairs of shoes for 250 children in the foster care system for Garfield County.”

That Christmas, Anderson organized a shoe drive as a competition at school for grades six through 12. Each grade brought different sizes, and the administration bought an off-campus meal for the middle school and the high school class that collected the most. The students donated around 250 pairs — one for every child in the foster system.

“After that, churches started contacting me, asking if they could do a similar Christmas project for Foster Feet. Ever since, it’s really just become something that the whole community has grabbed a hold of and supported,” Anderson said.

She did not anticipate the program’s expansion.

“I definitely did not think that in my junior year of college I would still be doing Foster Feet. I thought, maybe one Christmas project, and then that’s it,” she said. “And here I am, but it’s really amazing that Foster Feet has grown so much.”

Anderson’s grandparents are proud of Lauren and her compassion to help others. They enjoy seeing Foster Feet grow into a community effort and are proud of their granddaughter for taking on such a large project at such a young age.

Her paternal grandmother passed away at the end of 2016.

“She really had a heart for service and encouraged me to make Foster Feet what it is today,” Anderson said. “She was one of my biggest supporters throughout it all, and everywhere she went, she would tell her friends all about it.”

Instead of flowers at her funeral, Anderson’s grandfather asked for donations to Foster Feet, which expanded its stock. Their church, Central Christian Church, donated space for the charity’s inventory and now serves as its home base. It runs the annual back-to-school drive each August.

“We get to honor my grandmother in this way and watch Foster Feet grow,” Anderson said. “Honestly, good comes from something bad, like when you lose a loved one; but something like this that has helped so many other people is really incredible to say that my grandmother had such a big impact on it.”

Anderson organized Foster Feet’s board of directors who help run it while she attends college. It consists of Central Christian Church members and other community members from Enid. Anderson said people immediately stepped forward to serve. The memory of her grandmother and the board’s support make her feel capable of making a difference, despite her age.

“I think that’s the scariest part; being young and having this idea that could help others, but feeling that only adults could probably make it happen. Adults encouraged me and said, ‘If it’s going to happen, it has to be you.’ I think that’s probably given me the most confidence to go on,” Anderson said.

Full circle

Word of mouth remains the most impactful way people learn about the organization, either to reach out for help or to donate. Besides the church, school counselors let others know about its services the most.

“They can refer students to us that may only have flip-flops, preventing them from participating in P.E. So, we are able to provide them with some tennis shoes so that they can participate in P.E. with their classmates,” Anderson said.

During the most recent back-to-school drive in August 2019, Foster Feet distributed its entire stock to children in the Enid area, approximately 960 pairs of shoes.

“I think it really shows that people want to help, and they want to care about other people,” she said. “It has really been inspiring to me to see how many people want to give their time, make a donation, or volunteer.”

The same month as the back-to-school event, Anderson’s efforts came full circle. She received a photo of the foster child who sparked the idea, showing off her new pair of pink boots that fit.

“Stories like this foster child, who is now adopted, are very meaningful because I know that kids who need shoes can get them, and it is impacting someone’s life,” she said. “It’s not just a shoe closet. It really is something that is much, much more.”

Visit Foster Feet on Facebook at cpn.news/fosterfeet for more information.