The name of a local student, who speaks limited English, remains in Ellie Stewart’s mind. The two connected during the first year that Stewart chose to volunteer with Happy Feet Equals Learning Feet, Inc. commonly known as “Happy Feet.”

“She told me she didn’t have a mom or dad at home,” Stewart recalls. “She was living with relatives. I’ve watched her, every year, come back through ‘Happy Feet’ and get new shoes. I’ve watched how she has grown, how she continues to learn and I can tell she’s more confident.”

It was in 2009 when retired coal miner, Jerry Baird, started “Happy Feet” in Union County by helping 450 students. His goal was to remove one of the stumbling blocks to optimum school performance for students. He felt that not having personal items can distract a child from performing well in school. A new pair of shoes may help build self-esteem and reduce teasing and bullying.

This program expanded into neighboring Webster County the next year. Thirteen years later, it continues to gain momentum through the support of private and corporate donors. Last year, roughly 450 Webster County students were given new shoes. Stewart, who holds a full-time position at Independence Bank, now serves as board chair of the local “Happy Feet” chapter. The financial institution has supported the initiative since its inception.

“It changes your life,” Independence Bank President Belinda Wright reflected. “You assume that everybody has what they need, but you find out they don’t—and what a difference having what they do need makes.”

This September, a group of more than a dozen volunteers gathered at its six public schools to help size the feet of school-aged kids and assist in their shoe selection.

Shoe Sensation partners with “Happy Feet” in 17 of its 19 chapters, including Webster, by bringing a sample of inventory directly off its stores sales floor.

“Some of these kids don’t make it to stores, so this is an easy way for them to get to experience finding their own shoes,” Amanda Crowell, Market Sales Director for Shoe Sensation shared.
“When a little kid comes up and says, ‘Thank you. It’s my first pair of shoes I’ve had in a year. These are from last year.’ It hurts your heart.”

Just as the feet of students grow each year, so does the reach of this non-profit organization. As of December 31, 2022, a total of 44,981 children have received a new pair of athletic shoes. This monetarily accumulates to more than one million dollars.

In order to be eligible for the shoe shopping experience, Family Resource Coordinators send permission slips home with students. Parents or guardians must opt-in. Students have the choice of either wearing their new kicks back to class or to place them in a sack, along with new pairs of socks, to take home. The UK Extension Office also provided ChopChop magazines in the bags which included nutrition learning activities and recipes through the Kentucky Nutrition Education Program.

To volunteer or to donate, please visit Happy Feet’s website.