More than a thousand students are ready to run back to schools in Lancaster, PA, on Monday, thanks to the efforts of residents and employees at Willow Valley Communities.

The life plan community raised $25,000 this summer to buy new socks and sneakers for 800 pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students at the city’s public schools, as well as 300 children served by several community organizations.

The tradition of the annual campaign started in 2013, with more than 5,300 pairs of shoes donated in conjunction with Shoe Carnival to date. Residents from settings across the campus three miles outside of Lancaster helped deliver the shoes starting Aug. 5, with the Homeless Student Project at Carter and MacRae Elementary School.

The last deliveries this week called for a rainy Monday drive in a rented U-Haul truck to the local YWCA, which runs a public preschool program. The dreary morning turned around once staff rolled up the back of the vehicle.

“We take residents with us on each delivery so they have that firsthand experience,” said Laura Weaver, chairperson for the Sneakers for School project and bookkeeper for Willow Valley’s management arm. “On our last delivery, we got to see the preschoolers. You would have thought we brought them pots of gold or bags of candy. They [the children] were squealing and smiling profusely.”

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Weaver has chaired this project for nine years and knows the thank-you notes will come pouring in soon. When they do, she and other staff members will post pictures in buildings across campus to share the excitement.

It’s a great way to keep skilled care residents connected with a school district in which many used to work or volunteer, and to remind independent residents of the rich diversity of their community and opportunities to get involved in it, Weaver noted.

Employees are encouraged to give to the program, whether through cash donations that are tracked across campus on giant thermometers (with success measured by moving sneakers) or by devoting time to tallying funds, joining the deliveries or following up with recipient families who need to exchange shoes because a kiddo’s feet grew over summer. 

The organizing committee includes Kathleen Kreider, lead clinical dietitian at The Glen, which provides skilled nursing and personal care, and Travis Adams, manager of the memory support unit within The Glen.

Providing the service year-after-year is a point of pride for many team members, though Weaver said she wishes each year that the school district would tell her it’s no longer needed.

Lancaster County brings to mind images of the Amish who live there, but its main city is broadly diverse. The area’s Anabaptist Mennonite population, with its long tradition of local and international service, has made the city a welcoming home for refugees and immigrants. Some 60% of Lancaster students are Hispanic, 17% are African-American, and nearly 10% are Asian or other ethnicities. Students in the district speak more than 38 languages.

Many of them also live in hardship. The city’s poverty rate has hovered at about 25% in recent years, and the early COVID economic struggle has been tough for many families to recover from, Willow Valley leaders noted.

Thinking of students going without good shoes in a district filled with mostly walkers, especially as cooler weather approaches, is “heartbreaking,” but delivering Nike, Adidas and other names’ brands helps, one child at a time.

“This program gives these children the opportunity to go back to school like every other child,” Weaver said. “Our team members and residents see that joy.”