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New work boots from nonprofit provides opportunity, hope

December 8, 2018

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — When Mark O’Neill got a construction job through the day labor pool, he made sure to put a roll of duct tape in his pocket.

The tape wasn’t for fixing anything on the site.

It was for his work boots.

His boots once were shiny black and new. But when O’Neill walked into the home of the Downtown Ecumenical Services Council — the basement of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Jacksonville — his boots were falling apart, kind of like the 56-year-old Army veteran’s life had.

“I’m on the streets right now, trying to find a place to stay and get myself back up,” he said. “Nothing comes at a good time, but you can see what’s going on.”

He pointed at his old shoes.

It wasn’t just that the shine was long gone. The soles were peeling off, the toe of the left shoe wrapped in layers of black tape. That helped. But when he walked, the heel still separated from the shoe.

“Imagine walking around the construction site, wondering when you boots are going to fall off,” he said. “I was constantly taping them up.”

He took what was sitting on the table — a box with new, size 12, steel-toe, brown boots — and opened it.

“Do you mind if I change into these right quick?” he asked.

He unlaced the old boots, pulled out the old Dr. Scholl’s inserts and put them in the new boots. He slipped his feet into them, tied the laces and grinned.

“Oh, that’s perfect,” he said.

These boots, he said, provide opportunity. They mean that he can keep doing the day labor jobs that require steel-toe boots. If he can do that consistently, he can save up a little money. And if he can save up a little money, he figures he can get his life back on track.

So when he laced them up, they provided more than warmth against the winter cold. They provided hope that 2019 will be better than 2018.

This is what happens again and again in the basement of First Presbyterian Church.

Founded in 1981 by churches in urban Jacksonville, DESC provides food, clothing and financial help to the poor and homeless. It has just one full-time employee, executive director David Clark, and five part-time employees.

“We’re small but mighty,” Clark said. “Our volunteers are tireless and passionate. We literally could not do this without them.”

To tell the story of what one of them has done, follow Clark through the basement of the church that was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1901, past pallets of food and refrigerators, to a room crammed full of donated clothing, neatly organized by sizes.

Some of those volunteers are busy sorting clothes near a wall with a quote attributed to Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

DESC gave away 130,000 pieces of clothing last year — including hundreds of pairs of new work boots.

Linda Ferrigno made the boots her mission.

In 2017, her friend Julie Handley convinced her to come to DESC and see what was happening there.

“Julie is a dangerous friend to have,” she said with a laugh. “They were showing me all the wonderful things they do, and they told me about this one lady, Salli Sollow.”

Sollow, a volunteer, had decided that for her 70th birthday, she wanted people to give boots. Not fancy boots for herself. Steel-toe boots for others who, without them, wouldn’t be able to do some jobs. She wanted to raise enough money to buy 70 pairs of boots.

Ferrigno opened up her purse and gave them all the money she had on her.

A few days later, she got a thank-you note for her donation and a picture of the recipient of a pair boots.

His name was Randall. He was 51 years old. He described himself as a family man, working two part-time jobs, one at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, another detailing cars and cleaning carpeting.

“Randall called to me,” she said. “I just couldn’t forget him.”

She was about to turn 70, too. She knew her husband, Vince Ferrigno, probably was going to throw her a big surprise birthday party. She sat him down and told him she wanted him to spend the money on something else. Boots.

She said she was going to raise enough money to buy one pair of boots for every day of her birthday year. The boots cost about $25, so that’s close to $10,000.

She asked her family and friends to donate. And they did. In no time, her son said that maybe her goal was too low. So she doubled it. “Linderella,” as her family calls her, said that if she reached her goal by a certain date, she would wear a crown.

Where?

“Everywhere,” she said. “Church, the grocery store. ... People thought I had gone bonkers. They probably thought I was bonkers anyway.”

Before she retired, she was a wedding consultant and worked for the government, running programs for senior citizens. She now has a business card, with a photo of her wearing the crown, holding a sign that says: “One Shoe Can Change Your Life.”

She also has scrapbook with the stories and photos of the people who ended up with boots. Randall is No. 1.

On a morning November, the count was up to 763, including the additions of O’Neill and Scottie Rewis.

Rewis, 47, describes himself as a “country boy from Georgia.” He had been homeless before moving into transitional housing, a room with a shared bathroom. He was riding his bike to a bus station to get to a job. He was hoping to get more work.

“I have a good work ethic,” he said. “I show up every day and give 110, 115 percent. But to do the jobs I do, I need work boots. I can’t do it in tennis shoes or flip-flops.”

So when he opened a box, pulled out the new work boots, size 11, he had a similar reaction to O’Neill. He sounded hopeful.

“I’m getting my life back together,” he said. “These can make a big difference.”

For more information, or to donate,go to https://descjax.org.

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Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com

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