Written by RICH POLLACK. Photo by AARON BRISTOL.
For Joseph Rubsamen, a family trip to Nicaragua at age 9 was more than just a vacation. It was an eye-opener.
As Rubsamen, his parents and two brothers drove to the coast from the capital of Managua, they passed through areas of extreme poverty lined with windowless, rundown shacks. Rubsamen saw something else that hit him hard.
“I noticed that no one had shoes,” he said.
That observation in 2009 eventually led Rubsamen to start a nonprofit organization, Shoes2You. Since then, Rubsamen has collected about 6,500 pairs of shoes for children and families in Nicaragua, Indonesia, Kenya and here in Palm Beach County.
The 16-year-old sophomore at Oxbridge Academy has seen the impact his program has on those he reaches after personally delivering several hundred pairs. During one trip to Nicaragua, Rubsamen and his family delivered six bags of shoes to a small school, clinic complex, and to a women’s diabetic center. That is the best part, he said—the joy of seeing people get a pair of shoes and how it changes their lives.
During a trip to Bali, he visited a school that received more than 400 pairs of shoes—shoes needed for children to attend the school. “The shoes are giving someone a chance to get an education,” he said.
A resident of Delray Beach, Rubsamen recognized that there are many in South Florida who can’t afford new shoes. He’s organized shoe drop-offs at health-department locations in Delray Beach and Lantana and delivered shoes to the Paul’s Place after-school program at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach.
Most recently, Rubsamen and Shoes2You sent 99 pairs of shoes to orphans and impoverished children who were playing tennis barefoot on a makeshift dirt court in Africa.
“Joseph is an exceptional kid,” said Peggy Gossett-Seidman, a family friend who helped arrange shipping the shoes to Africa. “He couldn’t believe there were kids in the world who didn’t have shoes, and it broke his heart.”
Rubsamen’s mother, Merilynn Rubsamen, remembers how her youngest son couldn’t stop thinking about the barefoot people he saw in Nicaragua during that trip seven years ago.
“When we got home, he said, ‘I’m going to send the shoes that I don’t wear anymore to Nicaragua,’” she recalled.
Before long, Rubsamen and his mother were setting up the nonprofit organization with a local CPA and putting shoe collection bins at the student dropoff area at Unity School in Delray Beach, his school at the time.
“By the third day, there were four bins overflowing with shoes,” Merilynn Rubsamen said.
Unity continues to help Rubsamen collect new and gently used shoes, as does Oxbridge Academy. Earlier this year, the program received 1,700 pairs of shoes from Davenport School of the Arts in Winterhaven. He receives donations from the community and from retailers such as Nomad Surf Shop.
“The more that people help, the more people are affected,” he said. “It’s a chain reaction that leads to a better quality of life for everyone. It’s just a better world.” Learn how to donate at shoes2you.org.