It’s been eight years since then-12-year-old Nicholas Lowinger founded the Gotta Have Sole Foundation Inc. in Cranston. At the onset, the nonprofit’s mission was to deliver shoes to homeless youths in order to help them feel “confident, comfortable and special.”
That mission has since grown to encompass education-related milestones. Today, Lowinger is 20 years old and attending New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where he is studying marketing and sustainable business with a minor in social entrepreneurship.
PBN: What’s the scoop on Gotta Have Sole between when you started it and now?
LOWINGER: In the first year of operation, we gave footwear to 400 children just in Rhode Island. [After that], to date, we have given shoes to more than 97,000 children in all 50 states. Initially, we started off by giving new sneakers to homeless children, but our program has grown to address a bigger issue. We’ve seen the necessity to address other needs beyond the immediate needs of housing, food and footwear.
After years of meeting kids in Rhode Island and seeing firsthand the social, emotional and educational difficulties causing them to do poorly in school and be isolated from friendships, we decided to broaden our view to focus on education. Not only do we give homeless children the sneakers they need to get to school but now through our college ambassador program, we implement a curriculum at shelters which is designed to teach homeless children the life skills they need to succeed in school and to develop relationships with peers.
Our ultimate goal is to help children break the cycle of poverty. This pilot program was very successful at one shelter in Rhode Island and our plan is to expand this program across the state before taking it nationwide.
We also wanted to help students living in poverty who are pursuing a college education by giving $1,000 scholarships to students who have been accepted into accredited four-year colleges and universities. This scholarship was designed to offset the cost of their tuition in their freshman year. Over the past three years, we have given out scholarships to 15 students nationwide.
PBN: Has Gotta Have Sole taken a backseat to your college work, which would be completely understandable, or have you incorporated it into your studies somehow?
LOWINGER: Gotta Have Sole is very important to me and while I am definitely focusing on my studies, I have incorporated it into my college life. I am the philanthropic chair of my fraternity and [fellow members] will be assisting with footwear deliveries to shelters in New York City. I helped develop Gotta Have Sole’s College Ambassador program while a sophomore and serve as an ambassador.
[Additionally] I will be running our program with children in a New York City shelter in the spring and have been a guest speaker at a youth leadership conference in New York City for the past two years. [At those events] I engaged youth throughout the country to step in and support Gotta Have Sole by having them run Gotta Have Sole clubs in their local communities.
PBN: By your estimate, how many local youths have been served by Gotta Have Sole?
LOWINGER: Over the years, [Gotta Have Sole has helped] roughly 14,000 children.
PBN: Looking back, would you do anything different in the launch and implementation of the nonprofit?
LOWINGER: I would have contacted more local and national corporations to support our programs and looked for a national footwear sponsor.
While I didn’t know at the time that we would expand across the country, I would have looked to partner with shipping companies [as well]. Next to footwear purchases, shipping is our second-biggest expense.
Gotta Have Sole has been very successful as an at-home business; having an off-site location probably would have been better. My parents gave up parking in our garage a long time ago and I think they miss it, especially during New England’s inclement winter weather.
PBN: What advice would you give other Rhode Islanders who are looking to launch a nonprofit designed to serve those in need?
LOWINGER: It is very important to do whatever we can in order to have the greatest impact in eradicating poverty. If someone has an idea on how to help those living in poverty take a step toward a brighter future, I think they should act on it. Developing a 501(c)(3) gives people and corporations the ability to donate while getting tax deductions.