School kids get the opportunity to earn a pair of modified sneakers at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun video)
Eric Randall Jr. collects sneakers, deodorizes them, strips off scuffs and paints them in a rainbow of colors. In that way, he said, he is spreading goodness one pair at a time in his West Baltimore neighborhood.
On Tuesday, the 34-year-old father of two brought a bag of shoes to a third-grade classroom full of children at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School and a promise: For each kid who brought their grades up, he would personalize a pair of his donated sneakers with their names and any colors they chose.
“The sneaker culture is heavy in the African-American community, because it represents fashion,” Randall said. “Fashion brings happiness and shoes bring self-esteem. If you’re not deemed fresh, kids pick with you.”
His visit Tuesday was an extension of the K.E.Y.S Empowers program that leans on community members to enrich the lives of kids and families at the school. It’s in one of the most challenged parts of the the city, where half of children live below the poverty line, households have staggering unemployment and life expectancy is 15 years less than in the city’s more affluent neighborhoods.
The shoes are a tool to boost academics by offering an incentive that helps kids feel better about themselves, said Mujahid Muhammad, president of K.E.Y.S, which tries to deliver mental health intervention and advocacy through relationships and non-traditional techniques, such as community gardening.
“We’re connecting their self-esteem to improving their grades and improving behavior in school,” Muhammad said. “What we do know is when kids come to school feeling good about themselves, they are more likely to have a good day. Mr. Randall is doing a great job providing sneakers and shoes to kids who may not have, or kids who just need a boost.”
Inside the classroom, Muhammad built the kids’ excitement, asking: “Who likes sneakers?” All the kids’ hands shot up in the air.
“I found somebody to come here and design tennis shoes for y’all,” he told them. “They can put your name on it, whatever color you want. What if I told you that? Would you do all your work? Would you get all As?”
“Yes!” the children shouted.
Randall transformed a pair of plain white Nike Air Force 1’s in front of the classroom. With a mask, paint brush and brief tutorial, he painted the Swoosh bright orange and walked around the room to show the eager faces.
Nine-year-old Rayniya Stancil said improving her grades would be no problem because she pays close attention to her teachers. But she could not immediately decide whether she would want her new shoes to be white or pink.
Randall said he would deliver the personalized shoes in conjunction with the school in the coming weeks.
A self-described “sneaker head,” Randall owns BE-Z — an online clothing retailer — runs an inspirational YouTube channel and describes himself as “a young king from West Baltimore with dreams of a better light on my city and the people in it.” He said he got the idea to collect and give away the shoes — an effort he is calling B-More Soleful — during the recent government shutdown that left about 800,000 federal workers furloughed or on the job without pay. He said the struggle the government workforce was facing got him thinking about the widespread need in Baltimore and what sort of difference he could make.
He put out a call to his thousands of social media followers for any athletic shoes or boots they were willing to donate, taught himself how to refurbish them and started setting up appointments with city schools to give away the footwear. The shoes originally retail for $100 or more.
“This is grassroots,” Randall said. “Who else is there? Where’s the hometown hero?”
Roberto Fontanez, who owns the 9/10 Condition Sneaker Boutique on Light Street in Riverside, said a good-looking pair of sneakers gives kids motivation and confidence. Sneakers draw kids’ interest for a lot of personal reasons, he said, and can lead them to a hobby as a collector of rare shoes or entrepreneur who buys and sells the latest styles.
“When kids have some nice fresh clothes or new kicks, kids are less likely to make fun of them,” Fontanez said. “They can walk with their heads held high. There is something about cool sneakers that just does it.”
G. Travis Miller, principal at Matthew Henson, said the sneaker giveaway was a chance to uplift the students. The Matthew Henson school is named for a Maryland-born explorer who was one of the few African-Americans to take part in Arctic expeditions around the turn of the 20th century. About 360 kids are enrolled in the school, with a population that is about 100 percent black.
“We love to see our community neighbors inside the building,” Miller said. “Incentivizing behavior, attendance and achievement is part of the mission of Matthew Henson. To customize sneakers will make a statement to children that people outside of the school care. The sneakers will hopefully raise their self-esteem, teach them they want to do good and understand there is a reward at the end of their hard work.”