One Man’s Heart and Sole

One Man’s Heart and Sole

Ralph Rotella is “The Shoe Guy.” In his small downtown storefront, Discount Shoe Repair, Ralph Rotella does it all. He will re-heel your favorite loafers. He’ll replace the zipper on your leather jacket. He’ll fix the tap shoes of Broadway stars when they stop in Syracuse for a show. He once even repaired the boots of a rock star – Paul Stanley from KISS! But it’s not his talents as a cobbler that have made Ralph famous in Syracuse. It is his heart.

On a cold and snowy winter day in 2011, Ralph saw a man walking down Washington Street with a toe sticking out of his shoe. He brought him inside his shop, found a pair of boots in his size, and gave them to the man.

After that man walked out of his small shop, Ralph knew he wanted to do more to help those in need. He looked around and saw dozens of shoes in his shop that were dropped off and repaired. They sat on the shelves for weeks, sometimes months, just waiting for their owners, but the owners never came. That’s when Ralph had an idea.

"A lot of [the] time people don’t pick up their shoes, so I started with those as the donation drive for the Rescue Mission."

Ralph Rotella

The first year Ralph donated 35 pairs of shoes, the second year he sent 65, and that number steadily grew each year to hundreds and then to thousands. What began as a one-man shoe collection has grown into a team effort. Ralph, his friends, and supporters throughout the community come together each year to make sure no one goes without shoes. Over the past 12 years, Ralph’s shoe drive has collected and donated almost 250,000 pairs of shoes to the Rescue Mission.

Ralph says he’s not surprised at how big the drive has gotten. “When you do something nice, people appreciate it and want to help, so they bring shoes over.”

The shoes arrive in boxes and bags all year long – collected during drives organized by community members or brought in by individuals. Sometimes it’s a few pairs. Sometimes several hundred. Local businesses and organizations have even begun to step up, helping collect shoes on Ralph’s behalf. The word has spread and the collection of shoes has expanded well beyond Onondaga County and has inspired groups like “Tithe My Shoes,” which collects shoes throughout Oswego County.

"Every day I find boxes outside of the store, and now they even bring them to my house! I get more phone calls for shoe donations than for shoe repairs."

Ralph Rotella

After receiving the donations, Ralph cleans and repairs everything from boots to sandals. He’ll then place those shoes in the back room of Discount Shoe Repair, where giant bags and boxes of previous donations fill the space. There are so many donations that the Rescue Mission will pick them up at various times throughout the year with a celebratory final pick up in December.

You may wonder, what happens to the shoes? Many of them are given directly to Rescue Mission shelter guests and residents upon arrival or throughout their stay. Others that don’t find feet to be placed on are sold in the Thrifty Shopper stores where the proceeds pour directly back into Rescue Mission programming. Any shoes that are in too poor of condition for Ralph to fix are recycled.

Local restaurateur Randy Beach, is Ralph’s close friend. His family restaurant, Ale ‘n’ Angus Pub, serves as a regular collection point for the drive all year round. Randy has helped coordinate the drive for the last ten years. “All these shoes started coming in from his [Ralph’s] exposure on the radio and TV. He needed help. It’s not anything one man can do.”

Randy says they are on track to beat the record of 37,370 pairs, which they reached two years ago. He thinks they will have close to 40,000 pairs of shoes by collection day in December.

Another of Ralph’s friends, Mary Beth Cusano, also helps Ralph with the drive. She stops in to sort shoes and organize the donations. “We always had good shoes on our feet when we were younger, other people should too,” she says.

Ralph has been honored throughout the community for organizing the shoe drive. This Thanksgiving, the Rescue Mission was proud to recognize Ralph as well. In November, the Rescue Mission awarded Ralph with a Community Hope Award for putting his heart and “sole” into running the shoe drive for more than 10 years. Ralph says that he doesn’t see an end to the shoe drive, as long as those in the community continue to support the effort. “I really enjoy it, I can do this for a long time,” Ralph said.

Ralph collects used shoes year-round at Discount Shoe Repair, located at 114 East Washington St, Syracuse, NY. This year’s announcement of the shoe drive total and the final pick-up will be on December 14th.

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