Nicholas Lowinger

The teen’s Gotta Have Sole Foundation provides shoes to homeless children and teens.

Five-year-old Nicholas Lowinger had just gotten a new pair of sneakers — the kind with light-up heels — but his mother, Lori Lowinger, suggested that he dim his excitement, at least for a few hours. He was on his way to visit the Rhode Island Family Shelter in Warwick. His mother said they were about to meet children who might not have nice shoes. “The first thing he did was look at their feet,” says Lori Lowinger. Some kids had sneakers that were falling apart; some didn’t have footwear at all.

Twelve years later, the garage of the now seventeen-year-old’s Cranston family home is stacked with shelf after shelf of hundreds of shoe boxes organized by gender and size, and filled with brand new Nike, Adidas, Stride Rite and New Balance sneakers, plus winter boots, and even Spiderman and Hello Kitty-themed shoes for toddlers. It’s all a part of Gotta Have Sole, the foundation the teen — who is a junior at the Wheeler School — launched five years ago after organizing a successful shoe drive for the homeless as part of his bar mitzvah project. He’s distributed more than 23,000 pairs in thirty-five states purchased through donations and contributed by corporate sponsors like Zappos.

“The most rewarding thing is seeing the looks on the kids’ faces,” says Nicholas, who delivers the gifts in person when he can. At a recent shelter stop, there was a group of children who laced up their shoes and launched a dance party around him. Each pair is personally selected, including size sixteen shoes for a boy who had only been wearing flip-flops. They are packaged with socks and a handwritten card with a sneaker design, plus a message of hope from another homeless child who also participated in the program.

Lowinger has earned a string of national honors, most recently a Nickelodeon HALO (Helping and Leading Others) award in November, and the Charlotte Bacon Act of Kindness award in memory of a young girl who was killed in the Newtown shootings. He’s appeared on “The Today Show,” NBC Nightly News and CNN.

Nicholas helps bridge the gap between people. “He wants to change the mindset of how people view homelessness,” says Lori Lowinger. “He wants to teach people that we are all the same no matter what our finances are.”