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When two friends joined forces to donate socks to homeless shelters in January 2012, they had no idea it would lead them on a path to creating a nonprofit that has collected nearly one million pairs …
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When two friends joined forces to donate socks to homeless shelters in January 2012, they had no idea it would lead them on a path to creating a nonprofit that has collected nearly one million pairs of socks for people in need throughout the U.S.
The Sock It To ‘Em Sock Campaign, co-founded by Sue Lee and Phillis Shimamoto, collects and distributes new pairs of socks for people experiencing homelessness and those in need, such as low-income families, Marshall Fire victims and migrants who arrived in Denver in late 2022.
Although it was more than a decade ago, Lee remembers nearly every detail of how the nonprofit originated. She was in the soup aisle at King Soopers, shopping for Thanksgiving dinner on a Tuesday night in 2011.
“As I was literally grabbing a can of cream of mushroom soup, written in my head were yellow block letters with a red outline, and it went like a marquee and went across my head, inside my head, and it said, ‘Sock It To ‘Em Sock Campaign, socks for the homeless.’ And it kept rotating,” Lee said.
It made her stop in her tracks.
“Literally, it was written — so it wasn’t like a thought I had conjured up,” she said. “If the message were from God, I looked up and down the aisle to make sure nobody was around, and I said, ‘Seriously? You think I have nothing else to do?’”
The message kept repeating as she finished shopping. She walked to her car and, out loud, said, “OK, I’ll do it.”
“I got in the car and I called Phillis. And I said, ‘Phillis, you won’t believe what just happened. I might have gotten a divine message, I don’t know,’” Lee said.
Lee suggested they ask their friends to gather new pairs of socks through the end of December, and then take them to some homeless shelters in January.
“I was like, ‘Well, let’s do it,’” Shimamoto said.
During the first week in January 2012, in 7-degree weather, Lee and Shimamoto took 575 pairs of socks to three locations.
“And at every location, they were saying, this is the number one clothing need,” Lee said.
Shimamoto said after they found out socks were “the most requested item and the least donated,” they decided to continue collecting socks.
“We said, well, let’s do what we can. Let’s try to make it as big as we can,” Shimamoto said. “And who knew that after all this time, we would be on our way to a million socks.”
Educating people about the value of socks, especially to people experiencing homelessness, is part of the nonprofit’s work, Lee said.
There are an estimated 10,857 people experiencing homelessness on a given night in Colorado, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
The research article, “Foot Conditions among Homeless Persons: A Systematic Review,” cited a study that found people experiencing homelessness walked a median of five miles each day.
In another study, it was reported “that only 61% of homeless participants changed to a clean pair of socks daily.”
With walking being their primary mode of transportation, many people experiencing homelessness go through their socks fairly quickly, Lee explained.
“A pair of socks on a homeless person might last two to three days,” she said. “It’s really important to be — have those constant socks out there at shelter services and agencies for them.”
Lee said people sometimes only picture men as experiencing homelessness. However, a November 2014 report by the American Institutes for Research stated approximately 2.5 million children are homeless each year in the U.S.
“We had to educate people that … we need socks for men, women and children,” she said.
Something else Lee informs people of is the danger of foot ailments for people experiencing homelessness.
“One of the main reasons a person who’s homeless goes into the emergency room is a foot ailment, and they can die from that,” Lee said. “One way to stop that from happening is for them to have clean, dry socks to wear on a regular basis.”
“Every time someone gives socks, they should realize this might save a person’s life,” she said.
Eric Hill, an emergency medicine physician and the EMS medical director for the Medical Center of Aurora, said cold weather injuries and foot problems are high on the list of reasons people experiencing homelessness go to the emergency room.
“Especially around the wintertime, when you get really cold spikes, we tend to see more of it, especially in the days afterwards when they already have the frostbite,” Hill said. “They’re at a much higher risk just given their exposure levels and lack of appropriate clothing for that kind of environment.”
He noted people experiencing homelessness come to the emergency room for other, variable reasons, such as issues related to mental health and substance abuse.
“They may come in with (an) alcohol-related issue or drug-related issue, but when you’re actually evaluating them, you see that they actually have significant feet problems with that,” he said.
The toes are very susceptible to frostbite, he explained, saying having regular access to dry, clean socks is a big part of preventing foot ailments.
“Access to good footwear, waterproof, recurrent socks, is a great thing,” Hill said.
After continuing their work of collecting socks in 2013, by 2014, Lee and Shimamoto realized they needed to officially establish themselves as a nonprofit, which they did in 2015.
In the beginning, Lee and Shimamoto were counting, sorting, bagging and storing the socks themselves.
Now, members of the National Charity League do almost all of the counting, sorting and bagging for them, Lee said, and then the socks are stored in a storage unit until they’re ready for pickup from an organization that needs them.
The nonprofit collects and distributes socks in a variety of ways, and it has had influence in least 47 states in the country, Lee said.
One of the methods for collecting socks is through sock ambassadors, which Lee said is any person, business, place of worship, or organization that collects new socks for the nonprofit.
“And then they get them to us, we count, sort and bag them, and we get them out to shelters, services and agencies,” Lee said.
Over the years, the nonprofit has given socks to more than 200 shelter services and agencies, Lee said.
They also give socks to individual people who may be assembling “blessing bags” and want to include socks in them for people experiencing homelessness, she added.
Among the extensive list of sock recipients is Cardenas Ministries, a family operated nonprofit based in Henderson, in Adams County, that hosts a range of events and initiatives aimed at giving back to the community.
“We just enjoy doing stuff in the community, whether it’s for kids who are underprivileged or whether it’s for the women’s shelters, homeless,” said Valerie Soto, one of the family members.
“We were buying socks and we never had enough socks to give out,” Soto said.
During one of their events, roughly four years ago, they connected with someone who introduced them to Lee and the Sock It To ‘Em nonprofit.
“Sue has just been a big blessing. We’ve been able to help so many people because of Sock It To ‘Em,” Soto said.
She said they’ve received thousands of socks from the nonprofit, which are distributed through efforts such as their holiday events, gift bags they assemble for people experiencing homelessness, and their school supplies donations to southern Colorado communities.
Recently, Cardenas Ministries’ had about 1,000 pairs of socks from Sock It To ‘Em to hand out during its December “Spirit of Giving Parade of Toys” event, in which they gave out hats, gloves, socks and toys to families at different housing developments in Brighton and Commerce City.
“They’re angels on earth,” said Gloria Estrada, the mother of Soto, about Sock It To ‘Em. “The need is there.”
Soto said she can speak from experience, as when she was growing up, both of her parents were in college and there were “five of us kids.”
“We didn’t have enough clothes. We were very, very poor at that time,” Soto said. “And we would have to share socks.”
When children come up at the events and pick the pair of socks they want, it creates a good feeling, Soto said.
“Sock It To ‘Em, I’m telling you, they are just so amazing,” Soto said.
Cathy Law — the project manager for the Volunteers of America Colorado AmeriCorps Seniors Retired Senior Volunteer Program in Denver, Douglas and western Arapahoe counties — also praised Sock It To ‘Em for its partnership with Volunteers of America.
“It’s an amazing partnership,” Law said, explaining they first connected in 2016. “Sue and Phillis give me a bunch (of socks), and then I can distribute them in the community because we have partnerships with these other agencies.”
Law said she’s taken socks to many different places, such as to the Volunteers of America veterans’ service center and to food banks Volunteers of America works with.
“I really feel like it’s a heartbeat in the community, where they’re connecting people,” Law said about Sock It To ‘Em.
“They’re showing you that an act of kindness can go so far,” she added. “And that if you believe in something, you can make it happen.”
The nonprofit’s impact is also growing outside of Colorado, as Lee said the nonprofit gets submission forms from across the country of people wanting to do sock drives.
There are also people called “sock sherpas” who offer to transport socks to areas outside of Colorado.
In some states, smaller networks of people working together to collect and donate socks are forming, Shimamoto said.
“That’s always been our goal, is to be able to have pods of people in different states who can connect with one another and kind of build a small community,” Shimamoto said. “Hopefully, it just gets bigger and bigger.”
Even before earning its official nonprofit status, Sock It To ‘Em began making a name for itself in Colorado cities and towns.
On the Friday before Thanksgiving in 2014, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock proclaimed the second Wednesday in December a “Sock It To ‘Em Work Day,” Lee said.
Following the proclamation, Lee emailed seven mayors the next Monday asking for their support as well.
The next night, she went shopping for Thanksgiving in the same King Soopers at the same time as she had in 2011.
“I’m in the soup aisle and literally, I’m grabbing a can of cream of mushroom soup, and my phone goes off in my pocket,” she said.
It was Catherine Marinelli, the executive director of the Metro Mayors Caucus, a voluntary, regional association of 38 mayors. She told Lee two mayors had forwarded the email Lee sent to the caucus.
“And she goes, ‘We love this idea,’” Lee said.
Marinelli invited members of Sock It To ‘Em to attend the caucus’ legislative holiday party, which was the same day as the proclaimed work day, and said the mayors would be bringing socks to donate.
“And that got some other mayors interested in us,” Lee said.
One of those mayors was Clint Folsom, who was the mayor of Superior from 2014 to 2022. The town began collecting and distributing socks to people experiencing homelessness, Lee said.
When the 2021 Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County, displacing residents, Shimamoto reached out to Folsom to donate socks.
In total, they donated about 16,000 pairs of socks, Lee said.
“It was really cool to be able to give back to them after all that they had given to the community all of those years,” Shimamoto said. “It really warmed our hearts to be able to see that come full circle.”
A lot of the 16,000 pairs that went to Superior came from other cities who held Sock It To ‘Em sock drives, Lee said.
“It was really emotional,” she said.
The cities of Centennial, Greenwood Village and Englewood hosted sock drives again in late 2022, collecting new pairs of socks of all types and sizes through mid-January.
Schools have also joined in on the sock drives, such as High Five Preschool in Castle Rock, Bradford Primary School in Littleton, and Timberline Elementary School in Centennial.
Some schools, on the other hand, are the recipients of socks through the nonprofit’s sock drawer program. These drawers are typically implemented in Title I schools, which are schools receiving federal resources due to having a lower-income student population.
“Many of those kids go to school and they don’t have socks, and so we decided to do sock drawers,” Lee said. “And so we get them into schools and then we try to replenish them as we can.”
Some volunteers in the Retired Senior Volunteer Program gave back to Sock It To ‘Em by putting together sock drawers, Law said.
Since the 2022-23 school year began, the nonprofit established approximately 22 sock drawers in schools across the Denver metro area, Lee said.
Law reflected on how many people are involved in the collection and distribution of socks to people in need.
“By the time that individual gets that pair of socks, it’s not just a pair of socks. It’s those hands of love that say we’re thinking of you — and sometimes that’s more important, is just people knowing that someone’s thinking of them,” Law said.
Sock It To ‘Em plans to celebrate collecting one million pairs of socks on Feb. 16, reflecting on how the nonprofit has grown over the past decade and how it can continue to do so.
Expanding the sock drawer program, as well as the sock ambassador program, across the country are on the list of goals Lee has for the nonprofit’s future.
Another goal is raising funds.
“It would be significant to raise a quarter of a million dollars — that would allow us to really expand to the degree that we know we can,” Lee said, adding she would like to establish a facility for the nonprofit to operate in.
On top of its constant need for sock donations, the nonprofit also needs more volunteers, Lee said. Volunteer duties may include calling schools to see if they want a sock drawer, overseeing sock ambassadors, or transporting socks.
Lee encouraged those interested in learning more about the nonprofit and participating in it to fill out the submission form on their website: sockittoemsockcampaign.org.
Looking back at how the nonprofit has evolved over the years, Lee and Shimamoto encouraged people to pursue their ideas.
“If you have an idea, do it — and don’t be afraid that you won’t know how to do it, because there will be enough people in your sphere of influence that will know how to help you,” Lee said, encouraging people to ask themselves: “what if, what else and why not” when they have an idea.
The two friends expressed gratitude for all the ways people have supported their vision and nonprofit.
“We wouldn’t be able to be able to do what we do if it wasn’t for them,” Lee said. “It’s thousands of people who have really participated in where we are today.”
“Everybody’s contribution has meant something to someone,” Shimamoto added. “And everybody who has contributed one pair of socks has contributed to this large amount that just keeps growing every year.”
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