The idea came to them on the way to a polo match in 2015—a Dhani Jones–backed fund-raiser for underprivileged kids that 12-year-old Spencer Boyd II’s mom had asked him to attend with her. Being honest, “a polo match sounded boring,” says Boyd, so he asked if his friends Kellen Newman and Curtis Harrison IV could come, too; all three were eighth graders back then, Boyd and Harrison at Seven Hills School and Newman at Walnut Hills.
In the car on the way, the conversation turned, as it can with boys that age, to gym shoes. “We were talking about shoes we like—well, me specifically, because I’m a sneaker head; I have at least 30-plus pairs of shoes,” says Harrison. “Miss Jackie, Spencer’s mom, told us about how she was in Jamaica and there were kids that had cardboard for shoes. That really hit me. I just couldn’t imagine there are kids out there who never had a pair of shoes to wear.”
Immediately, Harrison said they should all do something to help. Eighth-graders being eighth-graders, “we really shrugged it off” at first, says Newman, “but Curtis is kind of the heart of the group, so he reminded us that we have to give back to people who are less fortunate.” It’s a notion Harrison says he got from his parents, who instilled in him early on to “give back to your community and be grateful for what you have.”
When the group arrived at the polo fields, “we went in with this idea of giving our shoes away that we outgrew,” says Boyd. But people they met at the event encouraged them to think bigger and do more by collecting shoes from other people, too. One week later, Newman, Harrison, and Boyd found themselves in a conference room at the Westin Hotel, supervised by Boyd’s mom, Jackie Taggart-Boyd (who works there), hashing out how exactly to develop this kernel of an idea.
Their first step? “Building a brand,” says Newman, which helped the group concretely define both who they were—high school scholar-athletes (with spots on football, basketball, swimming, track and field, baseball, and lacrosse teams)—and what they wanted to do: Collect and redistribute new and gently used sneakers to kids in need worldwide, starting with Jamaica. Next came the name, Sole Bros, a clever allusion to both shoes and friendship. Finding someone to distribute the shoes fell into place pretty easily, too, thanks to a connection Taggart-Boyd had to the RuJohn Foundation, a nonprofit that donates school supplies and runs celebrity sports camps for underprivileged kids in Jamaica. The only hard part was figuring out how and where to get the 1,000 pairs of shoes they wanted to send.
In December 2015, they used Boyd’s birthday party as their “launch party,” asking guests to bring donations for Sole Bros instead of gifts. After that, they promoted their cause on social media and through speaking engagements. They also hosted their inaugural “Feet Fete”—a used-shoe-collection party—at Corporate, a boutique sneaker store in Hyde Park.
Their parents were “very” involved at first, says Newman, driving the 12- and 13-year-olds to events, helping with website design and photo shoots, even opening a business banking account on their behalf since they weren’t old enough to open one themselves. But making all the organization’s decisions (both “good and bad,” Taggart-Boyd wrote via e-mail), getting other kids involved, and collecting the shoes was the boys’ responsibility from the start. Their classmates’ initial response “was really up and down,” says Boyd, but once people “started to actually see what we were doing, everybody got super into it [and] we ended up getting 1,200 pairs” of shoes.
The Sole Bros learned quickly that nonprofit work wasn’t all glitz and glamour, especially when dealing with used gym shoes, which can be a dirty and smelly business. “Ugh,” says Newman, remembering the group’s introduction to sneaker cleaning, a process involving 10 cans of Lysol and “plenty of cylinders of Lysol wipes” that lasted six months.
“We aren’t miracle workers,” he adds, “but we try to make it clean enough to where we’re proud of what we’ve done.” They also realized they “wanted these kids to have the same experience that we feel” when opening a box of new shoes, says Boyd. Suddenly, the Sole Bros brand evolved from just donating things they’d all outgrown to thinking about the feelings of the people who’d be receiving them.
They also learned another major lesson that first year, about the realities of physically getting the shoes to a different country. Their first estimate for shipping costs on 1,200 pairs of shoes to Jamaica “was like $10,000,” says Boyd—an unfathomable amount of money for an “organization” essentially consisting of three eighth-graders, tons of used footwear, and minimal cash. Enter DHL Express. (Boyd had written the company’s U.S. CEO, Greg Hewitt, asking for help; Hewitt responded with an emphatic yes.) The shipping giant “came up big time,” says Newman, agreeing to partner with Sole Bros from that point on to cover the cost of shipping shoes anywhere in the world they needed to go.
“I don’t want Sole Bros to be anything but high school kids making a difference,” says Spencer Boyd II. “That’s what we all agreed on. So once we’re done with high school, we gotta go. And somebody else has gotta come up.”
In May 2016, the shoes went off to Jamaica; in June, the boys followed. They didn’t get to hand out any shoes themselves (RuJohn had already distributed them), but they volunteered at the sports camps and learned a lot about how the nonprofit operated. Armed with that knowledge, the trio of then–high school freshmen started prepping a few months later for their second shoe delivery mission, to Ghana (partnering this time with a nonprofit called PLOG, which had reached out to the Sole Bros on Facebook).
With this trip, the Sole Bros “handled everything all on our own,” says Newman—a task “that was a bit more challenging but in some ways a bit more fun.” Again, thanks to shoe donations from Feet Fetes and financial donations (plus some grants), the group collected or bought close to 1,000 pairs of sneakers. Again, they planned to send the shoes ahead of time. But when it came time to ship everything in the summer of 2017, the teens hit a bump. The shoes got stuck in customs for “months,” says Boyd, “so our parents were scared to actually send us.”
Even though the Sole Bros never got to go to Ghana, this—their hardest mission—was also the one that touched the group the most. When PLOG representatives sent them photos of newly shod children “smiling and forming kick lines,” the Sole Bros truly understood “why we do what we do,” says Newman. Another photo of a group of little boys dressed up as each of the Sole Bros drove the point home. “It was, like, now you have to keep going,” says Breiland Anderson, a Lakota West High School student and longtime friend of Newman’s who became a Sole Bro in 2017, “’cause now you see who you’re inspiring.”
Soon enough, the Sole Bros—otherwise normal teens who eat a lot (per Taggart-Boyd) and joke around with each other—found themselves amassing a significant fan base in Greater Cincinnati; local media outlets ran stories about them in print and on TV, and speaking requests poured in from schools. Instead of just talking about their work, the Sole Bros pulled their audiences into the effort by having students hand-write inspirational notes—“a little message like ‘Just do it,’ or ‘Keep your head up,’ or ‘Dream big,’” says Boyd—that the teens now send out with every pair of shoes.
Even with four Sole Bros instead of three, balancing homework, classes, and sports with public appearances, fund-raisers, and sneaker cleanings started getting harder. For one thing, “people forget all the time that we’re still high-schoolers,” says Newman, who now attends St. Xavier (Harrison and Boyd stayed at Seven Hills). “We’re not perfect. We make mistakes.”
It’s also tough for them to tell whether the people who ask for shoe donations are valid organizations or “some old dude in his basement trying to get shoes to resell,” says Boyd. And it’s even harder to have to say no to groups like PLOG, who have come back asking the Sole Bros to help raise “countless amounts of money” so they can build a new school. “We’d love to help,” says Boyd, “but that’s not what we do.” In the end, says Newman, “it’s all part of the growth—learning more about life, learning more about business.”
In 2018, after being nudged by armchair social media critics to focus their efforts stateside, the Sole Bros obliged and made their summer mission a shoe drive for victims of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey—in a single day, they collected 1,000 pairs of shoes. They also established a local “Sneaker Closet” at the Revelation Missionary Baptist Church in Cincinnati’s West End, a “shoe store” where disadvantaged kids can “shop” for high end sneakers for free. The closet no doubt appeased the Sole Bros’ critics, but it also addressed an issue close to the teen boys’ hearts.
“We know a lot of kids get bullied for their type of shoes in Cincinnati,” says Newman, recalling a junior high friend who got made fun of once for wearing off-brand sneakers. “They were perfectly fine and he liked them, it’s just not the name brand Nikes or Jordans that everybody expects you to have.” With that in mind, the Sole Bros decided to “put all of our higher-end or brand new shoes in sneaker closets so that these kids that can’t afford it can go in and get a nice pair of shoes.”
To date, the closet has handed out 300 pairs. But the bigger takeaway, says Revelation Associate Minister Todd Ingram, is how the experience puts kids who normally have to just accept whatever they get “in the driver’s seat,” giving them a choice in something that, at their age, really matters to them. Instilling that kind of pride in others is “one of the mantras of the Sole Bros,” says Ingram. It’s the difference between a giver “who looks directly at you, as opposed to looking down at you. Everyone walks away with their head up.”
That’s a profound accomplishment for anyone, let alone a group of high-schoolers. But the Sole Bros didn’t stop there. They added a “tennis corner” to the Sneaker Closet in honor of Kyle Plush, an ardent young Sole Bros fan and Seven Hills student who died last year in a tragic accident. They wrote a children’s book about their work, which is now their main source of fund-raising. They won a Martin Luther King Jr. “Keep the Dream Alive” award from Bond Hill’s Church of the Resurrection. And they studied hard, held down summer jobs, overcame fears of public speaking, and stayed active in high school sports, too. Now, four years and 5,000 pairs of donated shoes later, they’ve grown from boys with vision to young men with heart.
As this story goes to press, Harrison, Newman, Anderson, and Boyd are high school seniors sending out college applications, unsure where the future will lead. They’re also doing something they’d planned from the start—searching for the next generation of Sole Bros to take over what they began. “I don’t want Sole Bros to be anything but high school kids making a difference,” says Boyd. “That’s what we all agreed on. So once we’re done with high school, we gotta go. And somebody else has gotta come up.”
Handing off something you carefully built in order to grow in a new direction isn’t unlike passing along a cherished pair of gym shoes you’ve outgrown. In fact, it’s right in line with the selfless mindset that created Sole Bros in the first place. “At a time in life when most youth are thinking about What’s best for me, they took time out to think of someone else,” says Ingram. “As my grandma would say, those are some good boys right there.”