The lives of Bill Sumner and his wife, Mary Ellen, are surrounded by shoes. The two run the Cynthia Holcomb Magic Shoe Foundation, which has donated gently worn shoes to organizations in Orange County for over three decades. They collect them daily, amassing about 40 to 90 pairs every other week at their home; he hosts shoe drives and spreads the word of how people can contribute, while she cleans, repairs and distributes sneakers, heels, boots, slippers, sandals—all sorts of footwear.
"I only keep so many for people to come, [to their home] but most of them are out," Mary Ellen said. "When I go Mary's Soup Kitchen they say their [the homeless] shoes, their feet are their mode of transportation. So shoes to them are like tires on a car and they walk everywhere, so they go through shoes like that."
Inspiration for the Sumners' nonprofit came from Raul Serratos,. Bill's brother asked him to train and coach the teen, then a 15-year-old high school dropout who didn't speak much English. On the morning they first met, Raul was hung over, had tattoos covering his arm, cut-off jeans and beat-up sneakers—hardly the ideal way to get ready for a 5K race. But even in that condition, Serratos beat Bill, taking it easy until mile 2, when Raul zoomed off past the longtime Corona del Mar High track coach.
Bill then learned Serratos' ultimate goal at the time: race professionally for cash. So the coach made him an offer: get back into school, and I'll train you to be better. Serratos not only finished high school, but ended up becoming a two-time All-American in cross country at the University of Riverside.
Inspired by his pupil's journey, Bill decided to start gathering shoes for other needy kids. He named the foundation after a friend who challenged him in 2003 to gather and give away a thousand shoes that year, then suddenly died of a heart attack just a day after giving him that goal. In her memory, he gave away 2,000 pairs; it's now at 10,000 pairs a year.
The Cynthia Holcomb Magic Shoe Foundation is personal on another level for Bill. He grew up in a "gang neighborhood," emancipating himself at 14 to escape an abusive stepfather. An uncle encouraged him to get into athletics to stay out of trouble, and he ended up excelling in baseball, football, and track, all while working to support himself. "The only thing that would keep you out of gangs when you're eleven years old in a gang neighborhood is because you gotta go to a baseball game," Bill said. "You gotta go to a basketball game, or your football game, or you gotta do something."
Because of his speed, others approached him to ask about his training and were surprised to find out he coached himself. He spent one year at Mt San Antonio College, but quickly established himself as a running coach. He started with the Cal Coast Track Club in 1976, then helped Edison High School for a year before hopping to Corona del Mar High School in 1984, where he's been ever since.
Throughout the decades, Bill ran his nonprofit mostly by himself, all the while coaching full-time. But as he got older, he "got tired" and turned to his wife—who had assisted right after Holcomb's death—for more help. "She was helping me, and I was getting in her way," he said.
She and Bill take pride in their work. "I get them one week, I process them and within 2-5 days they're gone and they're on somebody's feet," Mary Ellen said. The majority of their donations are new; for used shoes, if one is too worn or subpar, Mary Ellen doesn't feel comfortable giving them to anyone. But those that just need some brushing up get washed, new inserts, and laces, along with anything not beyond repair.
Over the last three decades, the Sumners have developed relationships with others that assist in their efforts, almost all by word of mouth. They'll do shoe drives and accept public donations, and also work with stores: When someone purchases new shoes, they're asked if they'd like to donate their old ones to the foundation. Growth is theoretically limitless, but the couple likes to keep their operations relatively small: they receive no grants, pay a lot of expenses themselves, and even eschew large fundraisers because they discovered the work and cost to put one on outweighs the profits.
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"Everybody says, 'Why don't you team up with somebody?'" Bill said. "I don't want to go any bigger, right now I have my hands full. We do it out of our house, if I do it any bigger, then something else has to go, and the closest thing to my heart is Magic Shoe and my Corona del Mar athletes."
About 40 orgs work with the Cynthia Holcomb Magic Shoe Foundation—some of the better known ones include the OC Armory Emergency Shelter Program, Boys and Girls clubs, Laura's House, Working Wardrobes, Orangewood, and churches. In addition, coaches from Santa Ana, Century and Saddleback high school come to their home to collect shoes for their student-athletes.
"You don't have to go far," said Mary Ellen. "There is such a need for it. We don't ask for receipts or anything in return. We do what we do—just to do it."
To learn how to donate or volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org