Tammy Palmer is giving thanks for something that many people take for granted.
Five of Palmer’s grandchildren received free new athletic shoes through Community Steps, a joint Mountain Iron Fire Department and United Way of Northeastern Minnesota (UWNEMN) program.
Community Steps provides new athletic shoes to children in need within the UWNEMN service area.
“There are no words for how great of a program this is,” Palmer, of Cook said. “To see the kids light up when they get new shoes is like getting a million dollars. It’s such a beautiful program.”
The program, launched by Laura Anderson, a Mountain Iron Fire Department firefighter, is in its second year.
Last year, the program provided new shoes to 40 children, according to Elizabeth Kelly, UWNEMN Resource Development and Events director.
A few weeks ago, after holding the fourth Community Steps event of 2022, 173 area children from August through early November this year, benefited from the program.
“We had a lot of applications and a lot of need for the program,” Kelly said. “It’s had a really big impact.”
At each Community Steps event, children, family, fire department and law enforcement members attend a dinner at Mountain Iron Community Center.
Children and families also receive fire prevention education.
Then, they head to Famous Footwear in Mountain Iron to pick out their own new pair of athletic shoes.
Children ride in fire trucks to the shoe store thanks to several area fire departments.
“The kids, when they learned they could pick out their own pair of shoes, were just thrilled,” Kelly said. “The kids said, ‘We can pick out any pair we want’? It was just a heartwarming experience.”
Famous Footwear provided a 20 percent discount on each pair of shoes.
Dr. Katie Evans, a podiatrist at Range Foot & Ankle in Virginia, volunteered to help ensure children received a proper fit.
“We had so many grateful kids and families that were hugging us,” Kelly said. “The gratitude abounded at these meetings.”
A Northern St. Louis County Family Services Collaborative program provided $7,500 in funding for the first three events this year.
The collaborative was established in 1995 by Independent School District 2142 St. Louis County Schools and also includes the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency, Arrowhead Regional Corrections, Hibbing Public Schools, and St. Louis County Health and Human Services.
Due to high demand, UWNEMN provided $3,500 for the fourth event in early November.
“We’ve had so many applications we’ve had a waiting list,” Kelly said. “So our board voted to extend the program to include as many kids as we could.”
Anderson, Mountain Iron Fire Department Community Outreach coordinator, said she launched the program as a way to show children that communities are behind them.
“I wanted to let these kids know that their community is with them every step of the way,” Anderson said. “There are a lot of amazing programs, but there’s something different in taking these kids to the shoe store and then letting them pick out any shoe they want.”
This year, the program took a huge stride forward as other fire departments and police departments stepped forward to help with the program or found ways to help kids in their own geographic areas get new shoes, she said.
“We had 11 applications from not on the Iron Range and I didn’t have the heart to tell them they didn’t qualify, so I reached out to other (fire) departments and they got the kids pairs of shoes,” Anderson said.
Anderson said the Hibbing Police Department along with departments in Eveleth and Gilbert have been fantastic to work with.
Children who have received new shoes have proudly shown their shoes off to police and others in Iron Range communities, she said.
“I had one kid come up to me in the community and said, “You helped me get these shoes’,” Anderson said. “You know how stoic police officers can look sometimes. There was this little girl who picked up these princess shoes that lit up. She showed them to this police officer and he just totally melted watching her.”
The program also helps children with self-esteem, she said.
“I’ve learned through this that shoes are a part of a person’s personality and how these kids get treated,” Anderson said. “Kids who have Nike’s at school are treated differently than kids who have holes in their shoes.”
As the program has grown, other fire and police departments such as in Alborn (south of the Iron Range) and in Minneapolis are looking at starting their own programs, she said.
With growing need, the Iron Range program could expand further next year, she said.
“I’m thinking next year is going to be very large the way it’s going,” Anderson said. “It’s a very heartwarming program.”
As families face increasing costs for shoes, clothing and other basic items, Palmer said the program and the people who organize and support it are making a huge difference in the lives of area children and families.
Beyond her own family, Palmer said the program is a big lift for many area families.
“I can’t say enough about the program and the people,” Palmer said. “Everybody is so warm and welcoming and it’s just such a great positive atmosphere. It’s just such a huge weight off the shoulders of these families. Just to see the impact it has on families is wonderful, especially in the world we live in right now.”