Helping walk in a student’s footsteps

UnityPoint Health and AFES partner for sixth-grade shoe program

When school rolls around in August, UnityPoint Health — Fort Dodge and Athletes For Education and Success are working together to make sure sixth graders in the community have a new pair of shoes to walk the halls.

The two local organizations have partnered together to donate shoes for incoming sixth graders, for the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year.

Shannon McQuillen, Vice President of People Excellence at UnityPoint Health, said the hospital wanted to do something directly for community students in need.

“We have engagement meetings within our organization, and one focus is finding ways to help families and kids within the community,” McQuillen said. “We wanted to do something with a back to school theme. We hold a school supply drive, which helps, but doesn’t directly impact kids, so this is great to be able to meet the needs of specific children.”

The “Back to School New Shoes Program” is set up for students entering sixth grade at Fort Dodge Middle School, St. Edmond Catholic School, Community Christian and St. Paul Lutheran School who qualify for the free or reduced school lunch program.

“No. 1, we want to see students have a pair of reliable shoes,” said Charles Clayton, Executive Director of AFES. “A lot of kids are stressed out about not having a pair of shoes. Going into middle school, kids start to pay attention to fashion. So it will be nice for kids to walk through the halls with a new pair to boost their confidence.”

Qualified families must register by July 1. To sign up as a business supporting the program, call (515) 574-6607, or visit the Fort Dodge Community School District or AFES Facebook pages.

“Kids wear shoes every single day and when school starts, kids like to have new shoes and outfits for the first day of school,” McQuillen said. “Leah Glasgow (UnityPoint Health Fort Dodge Chief Executive Officer) and I met with Charles Clayton to come up with a plan to try to be successful in the first year.”

McQuillen said the plan is to grow the program and hopefully add more grades as they continue to receive support from the community.

“This first year we wanted to focus on one grade and hopefully get it big enough where we are able to eventually provide shoes for sixth, seventh and eighth graders,” McQuillen said. “We want to make an impact beyond Fort Dodge as well.

“We want to get the community and businesses involved. We know they are passionate about kids. When we launched this, I had great engagement with the businesses. They wanted to jump on board right away.”

The plan for the program is to have all families signed up by next Friday. Anonymous tags will be made for students similar to the giving tree, with size and gender specified. Local businesses will then receive the tags.

“We will hand out the tags to the business, and they will purchase the shoes as part of engagement activities within their business or the organization. We will deliver the tags on July 11. The businesses will get the shoes back to us by Aug. 8.

“With AFES, the shoes will be grouped by size and gender. If businesses want to reach out, they can contact me at (515) 574-6511.”

Clayton’s AFES group, who took over Operation Christmas in recent years as well, always embraces the opportunity to give back to the community.

“I think it’s a great idea because so many kids need this,” Clayton said. “Families and students shouldn’t have to worry about buying shoes when they have so much else to worry about. With the price of gas and food, this can take some of the stress off of parents.

“We want to grow this, and I would love to get to the point of giving to multiple grades. It’s a great example of community partnership, and showing that Fort Dodge really cares.”

Kingsgate Insurance was one of the first businesses to jump on board.

“We wanted to help out for a number of reasons. First, I have kids in the school system around the same age and being close to that group’s age range, it drew a lot of appeal,” said Ryan Smith, president of Kingsgate Insurance. “I have known Charles for a long time … he was actually one of my coaches. He’s always been very active in the community.

“It’s a chance to do something for all the right reasons.”

Smith, a Fort Dodge native and current resident, said his team loves giving back.

“We grew up here … my dad started his business a few years after coming to the community,” Smith said. “We had a humble beginning.

“Our team is incredibly generous when helping families around Christmas time, so we thought this would be a perfect fit.”

CJ Bio America has also jumped on board this year and will be helping with the program.

“It’s a good opportunity for local businesses to help those in need,” said Luke Palmer, ESG director at CJ Bio America and another native of the area. “It really fits with our company’s mission. We want to support the community that supports us.

“There were 20 kids in my class at Otho (Elementary School), and then I went to South Junior High. It’s hard enough being nervous and scared meeting new kids … I can’t imagine how hard it would be not having a good pair of shoes. As simple and small as it sounds, it gives the kids confidence, and less to worry about.

“In our opinion, if we can help, we should help.”

As the program develops, McQuillen would love to have businesses sign up throughout the fall, winter and spring for the 2023-24 academic year.

“We would love to have businesses continue to sign up as we are planning and hoping to expand,” McQuillen said. “There is a huge need for shoes at the age in our community.

“I feel, in these coming years, we will have something special and we want to see it grow.”


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