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Aerobics First ‘fits’ it forward with older sneakers given to those in need

Time:2017-01-05 12:20Shoes websites Click:

Media East Coast HRM Sackville Halifax

Luke MacDonald, co-owner of Aerobics First, holds a photo of people who have received sneakers as a part of the initative and the names of the organizations he is collaborating with. (Contributed)

Luke MacDonald, co-owner of Aerobics First, holds a photo of people who have received sneakers as a part of the initative and the names of the organizations he is collaborating with. (Contributed)

Luke MacDonald takes shoes seriously.

As a co-owner of Aerobics First, a favourite Halifax shoe store among local runners, he’s immersed in the business of sneakers — and he’s bringing that love for footwear to the streets.

For 14 months MacDonald has been setting up a system through Aerobics First and a variety of charities that work with the homeless, that provides free shoes for people living in shelters or on the street.

It all started with a pile of old inventory that wasn’t moving on the sales floor. The initiative, Fit-it-Forward, even sends running shoes all the way to Kenya and Gambia.

MacDonald shows the rack of shoes in the Aerobics First basement, which he lovingly calls their “pile of shoes with no home.”

“This is $15,000 that sits there, that isn’t profitable anymore. It takes up space, looks a little ratty. It’s also an indicator of bad purchases, things that I’ve bought that didn’t work. I don’t like that. This is how Fit-it-Forward started.”

In a room adjacent to the pile of ‘homeless’ sneakers, there is another pile of gently used sneakers. Those are the ones that are sent to a new home in Kenya, or Gambia.

Through decades of involvement in the running world, MacDonald has friends and cohorts who go back and forth to Africa, and bring along kit bags of sneakers for people — many of them for promising young runners.

“Old shoes in the running world aren’t necessarily worn out shoes,” says MacDonald.

“I’ll see these and say it’s not good for a homeless person, so I’m going to put that in the pile for some of the fastest Kenyans in the world that don’t have shoes.”

What started as a way to provide shoes for the local homeless population, and avid runners in Africa, has blossomed into a well thought out system that works in conjunction with charities such as Souls Harbour Rescue Mission, Metro Non-Profit Housing and shelters like Bryony House, among others.

With an excel sheet on his phone, and a list of sizes and people in need, the document can be accessed by the charities so that the people who need the shoes most get them quickly. This is especially important for people living on the streets with conditions such as diabetes, where foot problems can turn life-threatening. MacDonald fits them individually to ensure they have the right size and fit for their feet.

“What they have done in the past is grab a pair they like the look of, and they put them on because they have never been fitted. That’s the type of stuff that loses limbs.

“If you are diabetic and you have an open lesion, which is likely because they are homeless, and you have put on a shoe that’s too small, that makes everything worse.

“One leg starts the chain of systemic failure. They lose one leg, then the other, then usually in three years they are dead.”

He has been fitting shoes for the homeless population in HRM in coffee shops, charity offices, and just about anywhere he can. For friends in Africa, he has them send a photo of one foot standing on the insole of the running shoes they are using, plus the size, and check the width and length needed for an optimal fit.

Fit-it-Forward is mostly customer sustained. Although they don’t advertise in-store, they have social media platforms to advertise their work.

He says many of the people who come into the store are repeat customers, who know them and trust them. They offer cash at the till to go towards keeping the initiative going.

When they give at the till, they can get their picture taken and it goes on social media, to share their thanks and to let others know that they can help too.

“The nature of our customers is that they are willing to pay more than regular price. They are dropping $150 on an average pair of sneakers, and they are saying, here is $20 for Fit-it-Forward, and that is pretty cool.”

The system works internally. The money is collected in a pending account, then he buys the old shoes from Aerobics First at cost, or lower than cost.

This gets rid of old inventory, and provides well-fitting shoes. He says if things keep going the way they are, they will have no useless inventory, and they will be able to get exact fits for people, with shoes right off their shelf.

He has also garnered notice from some big companies that are on-board to help.

Wolverine Worldwide took note and sent 265 pairs of shoes from its old inventory in Toronto.

This has allowed MacDonald to fit a lot of people in the last few weeks. He says when they receive help from companies, they get a shout out on social media.

If it sounds like a lot of work — it is. MacDonald spends 30 hours a week on Aerobics First work, and 30 hours a week on community initiatives through the business.

Fit-it-Forward is just one of many projects to benefit the community.

They have been involved in the Sparks Fly program that has given more than 2,300 stationary bikes to classrooms across the country, to help keep kids engaged and energetic.

The Start2Finish program provides sneakers to elementary aged kids. They also take part in numerous community runs for local, Canadian and international charities.

But MacDonald doesn’t see it as work, so much. He says it’s not often a small business could allow for a partner to do this much community work.

And he loves it, maybe as much as he loves sneakers.

“I bought my first pair of shoes here when I was 16 years old, and I decided I wanted to be a shoe fitter for the rest of my life,” says MacDonald.

Looking to the future, he intends to solidify the system he has established to get even more help.

With inventory sitting around in stores and warehouses everywhere, he wants to see it go to good use.

He says Aerobics First has a mantra that he wants others to get on board with.

“Our attitude isn’t how little can we give to feel ok about ourselves, it’s how much can we give to be awesome.”

For more information on the Fit-it-Forward initiative can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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