Panthers fans typically flock to the BB&T Center with plastic rats in hand – but on Tuesday night, many will carry shoes to the arena as well.
No, they’re not to throw on the ice – they’re going somewhere much more important.
Andrew Cohen, a local sixth-grader and avid sneakerhead, is using his passion for footwear to make a charitable impact. Back in 2015, he founded Sole Relief, a not-for-profit organization that collects shoes and sends them to underprivileged children across the world.
Cohen was routinely growing out of his sneakers – and he noticed the same thing happening to his friends – so he thought donating his old kicks might be worthwhile. That’s when he stumbled onto his cause.
"I did research online with my dad and found kids in some countries don’t have sneakers at all,” he said. “They walk around barefoot, and it’s not safe.
"It’s even one of the reasons they don’t go to school."
Turning an idea into a cause is no small task. So, Cohen made a project out of it – his Mitzvah project – in anticipation of his upcoming Bar Mitzvah.
"When me and my dad were thinking of different ideas, we thought about collecting sneakers.” he said. “And the idea just took off from there."
It certainly has taken off. From its inception in October through the end of 2015, Sole Relief collected 62 pairs of shoes. But when the calendar flipped to 2016, Sole Relief really hit the ground running. January brought in 94 more pairs. And last month? An astonishing 368 pairs – all of them going to children in need.
“We’re picking up sneakers all the time.” he said. "It really makes me feel good inside to know that we’re doing something good, plus my friends and family have been a huge help."
Word of mouth has spread rapidly since October. Recently, it even got around to Sarah MacKenzie, wife of Panthers center Derek MacKenzie. She brought the idea up to her contacts at the Florida Panthers Foundation, and from there, they forged a new partnership.
John Colombo, the Panthers Director of Community Relations and Grassroots Marketing, says that the partnership is a great fit.
"The Panthers and the Florida Panthers Foundation are thrilled to partner with Andrew and Sole Relief,” he said, "to grow their efforts to provide proper footwear for impoverished areas throughout the world."
In a way, Cohen and the Panthers go way back. One Stanley C. Panther actually attended Cohen’s first birthday party. But partnering with the team for a charitable venture is quite a few steps beyond that.
This certainly isn’t the finish line for Sole Relief, either. Cohen sees the nonprofit growing even more in the future – through word of mouth and more sneaker drives. Not a bad start for the sixth-grade sneakerhead who wanted to turn his passion into something more.
“My whole family has a passion for sneakers,” he said. "We wanted to share that with other people."
Please bring your new and used shoes to the JetBlue Tarmac on Tuesday, March 29 prior to the Florida Panthers match-up with the Toronto Maple Leafs to support Sole Relief.