Claire Baker, 15, is trying to gather 20,000 pairs of shoes during the next few months to send to people in Haiti.
At one point, the garage at 15-year-old Claire Baker's house in Maple Grove was so full of shoes, including everything from high-heeled stilettos to tiny rain boots, that there was no room to park.
Baker, a freshman at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, has collected 13,000 pairs of shoes for people in Haiti since the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that devastated the country.
The effort goes back to a community service requirement she had in seventh-grade at St. Vincent de Paul School in Brooklyn Park.
Family friends Lee and Dawn Shelton, who started a charity out of their Roseville home called Flip Flop Fleet to supply shoes to the needy in Haiti and elsewhere, inspired her ongoing project.
The couple, who adopted two children from Haiti, had photos of people in the country wearing plastic soda bottles as a crude kind of footwear. It shocked Baker.
"I thought there was no way that people wouldn't have something as basic as shoes," Baker said. She wanted "to help them get through their tough times with a pair of shoes."
So she went from classroom to classroom telling her peers about how many people in Haiti are forced to choose between food and shoes.
"Their [unprotected] feet can get cut and infected. They could die from disease because they don't have the medical facilities that we do," Baker said.
Furthermore, to go to school -- where many Haitian children get their only meal of the day -- they're required to wear shoes.
Baker, who expected to receive 250 pairs of shoes within that two-month period, wound up with 5,000 pairs. "It blew up and it just kept going," she said.
Now, Baker is taking her project to local schools, businesses and churches.
On one occasion, an entire congregation left their shoes on the altar, going home in the rain in their socks.
Shoes also frequently appear on her doorstep.
Today, Baker is striving to collect an additional 20,000 pairs of shoes by the end of April, in the hopes of winning a trip to Haiti with Soles4Souls, a Nashville-based nonprofit shoe charity.
"The shoe collector," as many people know her, has enlisted 40 friends around the metro area to pull it off. Also, as a part of national Catholic Schools Week activities, a handful of area schools are participating in a weeklong shoe drive.
Her church, St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, is letting her use a shed on its property as a warehouse space.
Although it can be a lot of work, she's motivated by the fact that "there's been an overwhelming amount of support and gratitude" from people near and far. "It's a simple thing that can give [Haitians] a lot of hope."
A big impact
When Dawn Shelton started Flip Flop Fleet with her husband, she never imagined how far Baker would take it. "I'm blown away by the sheer numbers she has accumulated," she said. It goes to show that "one small effort can grow into something amazing."
Kristen Ostendorf, an English teacher at Totino-Grace who also coordinates the school's service projects, praised Baker's organizational skills.
"I'm impressed with her as a person who has thought of a need and connected people to something that she believes in," she said.
"The great thing about her project is that it's really doable," and people can relate to it.
Ostendorf is eager to see where it takes Baker. At school, "We want to nurture her" and help her "dream the next step of the vision that she has," she said.
Nicole Langford, a spokeswoman for Soles4Souls, added: "What she's doing makes such a big impact. People are really following what she's doing. She's inspiring them to give back."
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.