Ralph Rotella likes to say that when he started his annual drive to collect shoes for the needy in Syracuse, back in 2010, he had jet black hair. Today, his hair is fully white.
“It’s all those shoes that did it,” he said.
The more important change from Rotella’s first shoe drive 11 years ago is this: That first year, Rotella collected, cleaned and repaired fewer than 100 pairs of donated shoes at his Discount Shoe Repair shop, 116 E. Washington St.
Last year, in the midst of the Covid pandemic, the tally for Ralphy’s Rescue Mission Shoe Drive was 23,187 pairs of shoes, boots, sneakers, sandals, slippers and any other type of footwear you can imagine. That was a new record, eclipsing the 18,000 pairs of the year before.
This year, the number could reach 25,000 or maybe even 30,000.
“It just keeps getting bigger,” Rotella said. He credits the “generous spirit” of people in the Syracuse area.
The shoes that Rotella collects will be picked up early on Dec. 16 and taken to the Syracuse Rescue Mission warehouse, said Mackenzie Naum, the mission’s director of major gifts. Many will be given to the mission’s clients, the homeless or those in need, and some will be sold at the agency’s Thrifty Shopper stores, she said.
“It’s one of our biggest donations each year,” Naum said.
Rotella takes any kind of shoe, and will work to fix up as many of those in disrepair as he can. Around 90% of the shoes he collects each year are usable, Naum said. The remainder are sent to a third-party recycler.
“Ralphy works his magic, and that’s why so many come in to us ready for people to wear them,” Naum said.
Rotella works on the shoes all year in his spare time (when he’s not repairing footwear for his paying customers). This year, he has two helpers, Mary Beth and Jamie, who contribute to the cleaning and polishing.
He also credits his friend Randy Beach, owner of downtown’s Ale ‘n Angus Pub, with helping promote the annual event.
“It’s all his fault it’s so big,” Rotella said. “He’s to blame.”
Beach, who also offers the pub at 238 Harrison St. as a drop-off point for shoes, thinks the Covid times are still contributing to the surge in shoe donations.
“A lot of people have had the time to go through their closets and find things they aren’t using,” Beach said. “It’s great that Ralphy can do what he does and help people.”
On Monday, Ruth Wells of Syracuse came into the shop for the first time. She donated several boxes and bags of shoes that belonged to a friend who recently passed away. Many were in new or nearly new condition.
“It’s quite a collection,” Wells said. “It will be nice if someone can use them.”
Rotella has often told about how he was inspired to start the shoe drive: He once saw a homeless person outside his shop window walking in the cold “with his toe sticking out of his shoe” and decided to help him out.
Rotella will continue to collect shoes for this year’s drive through Dec. 15. But he takes them all year long, and so the donations for the 2022 drive start on Dec. 16. The shop is open 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.