COLUMBIA — Growing up on the basketball courts in north Philadelphia, Dawn Staley knew other kids looked at more than how she played.
“Everybody didn’t care what you looked like. They looked down on our feet to see what kind of shoes you had on,” said Staley, the University of South Carolina women’s head basketball coach. “I really didn’t care what I looked like from my ankles up.”
With memories of how a new pair of shoes boosted her self-esteem, Staley has started a charity called Innersole to collect new sneakers for needy kids.
Innersole just completed its first weeklong shoe drive, collecting 336 new pairs with promises of more to come from friends that Staley has gathered over her Hall of Fame basketball career.
Sneakers arrived last week in the arms of mothers and daughters coming to the Gamecocks practice facility for basketball camp and in large boxes sent by shoe companies, colleges and pro basketball players.
Terri Chapman, who came to Columbia from Walterboro to watch her niece at a basketball camp last week, donated a pair a pink-and-white Nike sneakers.
“I wanted to support some other young lady who’s out there with aspirations of wanting to play ball,” she said.
‘Touch a lot of lives’
Staley, 43, said the inspiration for Innersole came from Rene McCall-Flint, a friend from her hometown of Philadelphia, who wanted to know where she could donate some new pairs of sneakers she found while clearing out her closet a couple of months ago.
They talked about how they wanted to see someone benefit from the donation. The discussion turned to how a pair of new sneakers gave Staley extra pep and confidence growing up.
“It takes your mind off of whatever it is that is going on in your life for that one moment that you have them on, for that one moment when someone sees you with those new sneakers on and gives you that compliment,” Staley said. “Hopefully, we can touch a lot of lives in that way.”
Together, McCall-Flint and Staley founded Innersole. The charity asks for new sneakers for school-age children since there are other places to get used shoes.
The concept for Innersole is perfect for a legend set to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this fall, said Doug White, an expert in charities who teaches at Columbia University.
“A basketball star collecting sneakers for needy kids: “It doesn’t get any closer to the heartstring factor than that,” he said.
Staley wants the charity to succeed on its own. Innersole’s website mentions the famed ex-player with three Final Four appearances and three Olympic Gold medals only on its page with links to news stories.
“I want people to give to the cause and not just because it’s me,” Staley said.
White thinks Staley should have her name and photo on the website to bolster attention – and donations. Still, he added, “I love the humility about it.”
But that does not mean that Staley is remaining quiet.
She has been pitching Innersole around Columbia where her Gamecock teams are coming off a second-straight NCAA appearance. And Staley has been using her Twitter feed to seek contributions from the basketball world.
Nike sent several pairs of colorful shoes from its collection named after NBA star Kobe Bryant.
Several WNBA stars, including Tamika Catchings and Tina Thompson, shipped sneakers last week.
Fatima Maddox, a member of the Harlem Globetrotters whom Staley coached at Temple University, plans to donate some of her custom-made sneakers.
Innersole also has received shoes from college basketball programs at Georgia, Arkansas and Missouri. Coaches at Auburn contributed money. And some USC coaches have donated sneakers from their personal and team collections.
Staley said she can see Innersole as a place where universities can send extra sneakers without any potential NCAA infraction issues. “We want to unite universities,” she said.
‘Help them compete’
The first round of shoe donations will go to Columbia-area kids, Staley said.
The charity wants to get shoes to needy students in time for school to open in August.
Innersole is working with Healthy Learners, which helps children get medical care, to identify kids who need sneakers.
Healthy Learners, which assists about 700 Richland and Lexington county students, will identify potential shoe recipients in its own program as well as take referrals from school social workers and Cooperative Ministries, executive director Jo Pauling-Jones said.
New sneakers “can help them compete with other kids in school,” she said.
Staley said she is looking for corporate sponsors that will help expand the charity nationally and internationally. She is aiming first at an obvious target – sneaker companies.
For now, Innersole consists of Staley, McCall-Flint, an operations manager and volunteer help from the coach’s nieces and nephews – whom Staley notes have received a few pairs of new shoes from her over the years.
Winnsboro’s Chapman, who donated sneakers last week, said the donations have a lasting impact. The retired teacher said a former student thanked her two weeks ago for clothes and shoes that Chapman gave her 20 years ago.
“To know those kids are able to go a little bit farther because someone else has thought enough to contribute to their life, it means a world of difference,” Chapman said.