A cause with a sole: These Torontonians are helping kids find themselves - one pair of sneakers at a time

When the hottest shoes hit the shelves, they often come with a steep price tag that puts them out of reach for many, but one Toronto-based community group is working to make sure young people in disadvantaged communities don't get left out — and teaching valuable lessons about life and empowerment in the process. 

The Kickback Project is the brainchild of photographer Jamal Burger and Christian Epistola. 

It sprang from an experience they both know well, growing up in the communities of Regent Park and the Esplanade, where their families often had to make do with little. 

"Just knowing how how much it would cost your parents to get you a pair of sneakers, you kind of try to figure it out on your own once you hit like 13 or 14," Burger told CBC's Our Toronto.

"And for me, it's just like how do we make sure that kids aren't doing inappropriate things to about getting a pair of sneakers."

That inspired Burger to run a sneaker drive in Regent Park in 2016. And it was a success.

A step to something more

But, he says, he learned quickly that although the sneakers could put a smile on young faces, something was missing.

"Did they learn anything? Are they walking away with anything special that's going to change their life? Is it going to change the environment in the home?" he asked himself.

Paul Smith/CBC

About a year later, he joined forces with Epistola to create series of workshops designed to teach young people about confidence, respect for themselves and for their community. 

"We used the sneakers as a platform just to teach," Epistola said, recalling what his own prized kicks meant to him growing up. "It gave us access to safe transportation, gave us access to physical activity. And often you don't see that as a kid."

You get the point where it doesn't matter what sneakers you're wearing.​​​​​ - Jamal Burger

But the pair says the pressure on kids today is even greater.

Back when they were growing up, if you had a hole in your shoe, "whoever saw, saw," Burger said. "Kids are more susceptible to social media now and being poked at, or being highlighted for inadequacy or not having."

1,500 pairs and counting

So far, the project has given away 1,500 pairs of sneakers to young people — and not just in Toronto. The Kickback has organized programs in Vancouver, Boston and as far away as Panama. Donations for the shoes have come from across the city, including professional athletes, like Toronto Raptor Kyle Lowry, who can often relate to the goals of the program firsthand.

The pitch to potential donors, says Burger: "We're collecting these sneakers from you so that we can connect your story with a kid who's in your shoes when you were his age."

Moustapha Youssouf received sneakers through the program some years ago and has since joined the team after seeing the real-life impact it had.

Paul Smith/CBC

"I always thought I'd have to build who I am as a person first and then show what I did for myself. But now I'm sort of learning that I could be doing my own thing and still trying to give back during the process rather than waiting 'til I'm accomplished," he said.

'Everyone has to find themselves'

Aukya Obeng received a pair too — the same kind that Raptors sharpshooter Danny Green was seen sporting during the NBA Finals.

"It makes me feel really special because I got shoes that maybe not everyone can ... The right people gave them to me."

Paul Smith/CBC

And while the Burger and Epistola know sneakers alone can't make up for a lack of confidence, they can be a boost.

"Any single kid that lives in the downtown core and experiences a low-income household, we all have good intent," Burger said.

"To save my mom the trouble, to help my family, to make sure my little brothers are good and make sure my little sister is good. But when we don't have that mentorship or that guide, sometimes you make the wrong decision.

"Everyone has to find themselves and it takes time," Burger added.

"The sooner you figure out who you are, the quicker you become comfortable with yourself. You get the point where it doesn't matter what sneakers you're wearing."