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Kicks for Kindness: Shoe Drive Helps Schools Pay Lunch Debt
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BETHLEHEM, Pa. (WLVT) - Liberty High School's choir has a musical message for the student body, channeling Whitney Houston and a call to action in a video that will be part of the morning announcements.

"Bring me a pair of shoes. You've got nothing to lose!
Any size, they will do. Make a difference. Bring a pair of shoes!"

The school has a cardboard bin in the main office, designated for shoe donations. It's part of an ongoing drive organized by the nonprofit Kindness is Magic.

Founder Melissa Fillman started the campaign last year with two goals in mind: to help those who need the shoes and to help local schools eat up lunch debt.

"I think it's a win-win for everyone," she said. "That's why we really like to do it."

Fillman partners with an organization called Funds2Orgs, which provides money for shoe drive fundraisers. In this case, for every pound of shoes, 40 cents goes to paying off debt.

Last year, Kindness is Magic collected 8,246 pounds of shoes, which turned into $3,298.40. Fillman said monetary donations from the community bumped the final total to $4,500.

"When you do something for each other, it really helps you see each other's humanity. That's really what it's all about," she said.

Fillman said her daughter Emma inspired her through an act of kindness. PBS39 featured her story in May 2019.

"She told me that she was paying for a little boy's milk on her lunch card, because she witnessed the lunch lady making him put his food back when he took his tray up to pay," Fillman said. "I didn't realize that that could even happen in our district. She was six at the time."

In 2017, Pennsylvania banned schools from denying students meals. Fillman said this prevents lunch shaming and addresses food insecurity.

"How can you go to school hungry and be able to function?" she said. "I know myself at work. If it's lunchtime, I'm getting a little cranky. You got to think about a six or seven-year-old who maybe didn't have breakfast and really needs their lunch or might not have dinner."

This year, the shoe drive benefits four districts: Bethlehem Area (BASD), East Penn, Saucon Valley and Northampton Area.

According to BASD business manager Frank Pearn, Jr., the district's lunch debt has grown by 40 percent since the new legislation. As of February 21, the debt was $248,264. This represents 23 percent of students. Some have just a nickel. Others have more than a thousand dollars.

At Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Bethlehem, seven out of 10 students qualify for a free or reduced lunch. Principal Tracey Hirner said the shoe drive helps the school in more ways than one.

"When we talk to our students and our families, when you talk about a win-win, that's part of our Leader in Me program, and our students feel a part of giving back to not just their community but to other countries as well," she said.

Funds2Orgs gives the shoes to children and families in developing countries as part of what's called micro-enterprise. Last year, the shoes collected by Kindness is Magic went to Haiti. Fillman said she’s not sure where the shoes are going this time, but they’ll make a big impact.

"Those families and their communities, they have small businesses, and they are starting a small shoe business, and they sell them in their community," she explained. "So, that's why we take any size, because it's for everybody in that community."

"The fact that we're assisting our families and paying down that lunch debt and making sure that all kids can eat and feel healthy and feel nourished is very important to us," Hirner said.

Liberty High School's choir president Jill Rudolph, 18, said she knows what it’s like to go hungry during school.

'I would get to the end of the line, put my lunch PIN in, and they'd start to tell me how much lunch money I owed," she said. "I didn't know that was a thing when I was younger, so they would make me put my tray back at the end."

Now that schools can’t do that anymore, they have to charge students. Fillman said some districts eat up the debt, but she’s heard of others putting that responsibility on students.

"They won’t let them walk at graduation, or they don't let them participate in extracurricular activities," she said.

"It's mandatory debt in a way, which is creating more stress in a population that's already really stressed out," said Dawson Escott, 17, a senior in Liberty's choir.

Kindness is Magic has bins in 45 schools and 15 other locations in the Lehigh Valley.

"I am thrilled to be part of this project, where we can make our huge student body aware of what those bins are for," said Liberty choral director Julie Wydrzynski. "When they see their peers on the morning announcements saying, 'Bring us a pair of shoes,' I'm hoping that when they're going through the closet in the morning, it might make a difference that they're willing to bring in those shoes instead of letting them just sit there."

"Every day, I get a bunch of phone calls and emails and people telling me that their bins are full," Fillman said, "and then I quickly reach out to people that help me collect, and we get them all collected during the day."

The shoe drive ends on March 28. For a list of donation drop-off sites, click HERE.