Running their own nonprofit, Pennsylvania family performs corporal work of mercy giving shoes to those living on the streets
The next time you ponder which pair of shoes to wear in your closet, consider the homeless who wear the same pair every day.
That’s what Dr. Matt Conti, 27, a graduate of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and a first year resident at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, recalled thinking the first time he volunteered at the wound care center of Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh at age 14.
“It was an eye-opening experience, because the wounds that people came in with can be really horrific,” he said. “Spending time in the wound center showed me how much people take for granted, for example, properly fitted shoes.”
In 2004, his high school volunteer experience inspired him to found a nonprofit, charitable organization in Pittsburgh called Our Hearts to Your Soles to provide free foot care, fittings and comfortable shoes to the homeless.
“I think homeless men and women are more active than people believe and often walk many miles a day, and if they’re walking a lot, they can be vulnerable to pressure ulcers,” Conti said. “Just to be able to help someone walk around in a comfortable pair of shoes is worth pursuing. It can make a big difference in someone’s quality of life.”
Tom Kneier, administrator of St. Joseph House of Hospitality, a residential program for older homeless men or men at risk of homelessness, in Pittsburgh, sees residents with diabetes and serious conditions that require professional foot care. Most homeless do not have the means to access public transportation and walk to medical appointments, mental health appointments, recovery meetings, job sites, food stores and interview locations.
Kneier said homeless have the pair of shoes they’re wearing. “The men at St. Joe’s and men at temporary shelters typically rely on places that give out donated items,” he said. “But there’s no guarantee that their shoe size is in stock. So they often end up taking whatever is available.”
Currently, Our Hearts to Your Soles annually serves 8,000 homeless men and women in 35 to 40 sites across the United States, including Puerto Rico. So far, they have shoed more than 50,000 people since they started. It is the first charity to provide free medical foot care, fittings, new shoes and socks for the homeless in the country.
Matt’s first step in setting up the organization was to speak with his father, Dr. Stephen Conti, an orthopaedic foot and ankle surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pittsburgh. Together, they developed a business plan and ways to obtain donations.
After a year of planning, the first event was held on Feb. 24, 2006, at Light of Life Rescue Mission on Pittsburgh’s north side. Matt, Stephen Conti and some of his colleagues, Colaizzi Pedorthic Center in Bellevue and Hanger Orthopedics Group treated toenails, calluses and sores, completed fittings and gave new orthotic shoes to approximately 50 homeless men.
A few months later, a second event was held in central Pennsylvania in Harrisburg and provided foot care and shoes to some 50-75 homeless men.
By November 2007, the organization had expanded nationally with sites in 23 states and served approximately 3,000 homeless. The same year, they partnered with Soles4Souls, an international nonprofit in Nashville, Tennessee, that distributes the shoes to sites, and Red Wing Shoes, an American footwear company in Red Wing, Minnesota, that donates 6,000 pairs of Red Wing boots every year.
Besides his father, Matt is supported by his sister, Laura, with national outreach; brother, Chris, who started a supplemental charity called Socks2Soles in 2010; and their mother, Carol, who manages and coordinates locations. The family belongs to Sts. John and Paul parish in Franklin Park outside of Pittsburgh.
The family’s support enables every dollar donated to stay within the organization. There are no administrative expenses and they don’t hire anybody — it’s just the five of them with support from companies. Their annual cost to sponsor the charity is $30,000. The estimated cost for new shoes and socks is more than $1 million.
Every site is operated by orthopaedic surgeons and staff consisting of orthotists or pedorthists and volunteers. The five- to 10-minute procedure includes a foot examination, proper fitting for correct shoe size, a new pair of shoes and two pairs of new socks.
Since 2009, Our Hearts to Your Soles holds an annual event the day before Thanksgiving and helps an average of 400 homeless men and women at Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center in downtown Pittsburgh.
In 2010, the organization partnered with Dignity U Wear in Jacksonville, Florida, that gives 8,000 pairs of socks yearly with a total of 70,000 pairs of socks; and in 2015, Superfeet Worldwide Inc., in Ferndale, Washington, donated 300-400 custom-fit orthotics.
In 2009, Bishop David A. Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh presented the Caritas Award for Service to Matthew and Laura Conti on behalf of the diocese.
In 2010, Stephen Conti was awarded the 2009 Jefferson Award and was named one of seven finalists for the Most Outstanding Volunteer Award.