Nicholas Lowinger can still recall the first time he ever set foot in a shelter for homeless people.
He was just five-years-old, accompanying his mom, an art therapist whose work took her to places her son might otherwise never have seen.
'I remember . . . seeing kids who were just like me,' he says. 'The only difference was that they had footwear that was falling apart. Those kids had blisters on their feet because they just had to wear whatever shoes they could get their hands on. It just wasn't right.'
Despite his young age, Nicholas - who lives in Cranston, Rhode Island, just a few miles up the road from our studio here in Saunderstown - never forgot those kids. Five years later, when he needed to undertake a project as part of his Bar Mitzvah, he headed back to the homeless shelter that had left its mark. Ever since that day, in 2010, he has dedicated himself to helping others.
Shoes remain the focus of a teenager who, having fulfilled the requirements of his Bar Mitzvah, rejected the chance to abandon the project and instead set about redoubling his efforts. He established the Gotta Have Sole Foundation, an organization that strives to 'Provide children living in shelters across the United States with brand-new footwear to call their own'. In the last four years, more than 10,000 kids in 21 different states have benefited from Nicholas' benevolence.
This is, as Nicholas notes, not just about shoes. There are obvious health benefits, but more than that, Gotta Have Sole is helping children to fit in, find acceptance and feel better about themselves.
'Homeless children shouldn't have to be worried about being accepted and fitting in,' he says. '[This is] more than just giving them shoes, it's helping kids to be kids. Their self-esteem goes up, their attitude towards life changes and that's the thing that makes it all so special for me'.
The evidence backs up Nicholas' claims, with those on the receiving end showing improvements in school attendance and participating in more sports and social activities. In recent times, Nicholas, whose parents' garage is filled from floor to ceiling with shoe boxes, has started two additional programs, one that helps veterans and another that provides sporting footwear to children from disadvantaged homes.
In the process, he has touched (and improved) innumerable lives both here in Rhode Island and right across the United States. In doing so, he serves as an inspiration to us all and we're determined to start following his lead.
'I think it's important to give back to the community,' he adds. 'Especially when it can make someone else's life better. If you [can] start doing good deeds when you're young, it will come naturally to you when you're older. Maybe other kids will be inspired by your actions. I see the difference I'm making to other people and I just want to continue. It doesn't matter what you're doing or how long you do it, just a little bit of time makes a big difference. Just a few minutes doing something can change people's lives.'
This is a lesson that we can all learn and one that, here at OM®, we're determined to take on board. This is a tale that inspires us for countless reasons, not least because, despite being almost a neighbor, news of Nicholas' exploits hasn't reached our studio until now, making us wonder how many other people there are on our doorstep doing great things, helping other people and making connections. Perhaps YOU know someone. Drop us a line and tell us, we'd LOVE to hear about it.
Here's to Nicholas, here's to Gotta Have Sole and here's to making a difference . . .