Phoenix Rising: Hav a Sole

08/11/2015 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

One year ago, my son, Rikki, a professed "sneakerhead" decided to give away some of his coveted collection of shoes to those less fortunate than he. That idea turned into Hav A Sole, and since then, he has given away over five thousand pairs of shoes.

2015-08-10-1439245383-8706494-1013855_830567426981545_7427812015545336050_n1.jpg Photo: Sabrina Noel Hill

In order to grasp the extraordinary nature of this story, we'd have to go back to the early nineties when I hit a bottom with drugs, separated from an ex-husband of twenty years and had nowhere to live. Fortunately I was able to get an interview at CLARE's Women and Children Center, and Rikki and I were able to move into one of their apartments where we shared a small room with two single beds across the hall from another mom and her son.

Without any marketable skills, I got on welfare. However, after I paid the four hundred dollars rent, bought food and bus transportation, I had no money left.

A month later Rikki was starting a new school.

"Mom, I need shoes. These ones have holes in them," he said.

"I don't have the money right now," I replied. "You're just going to have to wait."

He turned away but not before I saw the shadow of disappointment move across his face. The look alone was enough to break my heart all over again.

Soon after, Becky, a perky, heavy-set woman came by to share her story with us. She explained how her drinking had gotten so out of control, that she too hit a bottom and came to live at CLARE with her son. In spite of all she had been through, she was now sober and living a life beyond her wildest dreams. When she told us how grateful she was for getting a second chance, I had a hard time believing her. At the time I didn't think it was possible to be happy and even if it were true, it surely could never happen for someone like me.

After the meeting, all the moms were milling around and chatting when Rikki came bursting in the room.

"Mom look, the holes have gotten worse," he said, holding his shoes up for me to see.

I lowered my head, thinking the other women were judging me.

Becky overheard and asked, "Does your son need shoes? I can buy him some."

For the record I'm not a needy woman. I come from a long line of self-reliant Scottish stock. It was not my policy to accept handouts from anyone, let alone a complete stranger like Becky. It just didn't go with my finely tuned, tough girl persona, a by-product from living a defended life. However, leveled by circumstances (and the fact that it was my son we were talking about) I paused only briefly before I let out a long sigh and relinquished my pride.

"If you're sure you don't mind?" I said.

Minutes later we were piling into her car and making the short drive to a shoe store where Becky bought Rikki two brand new pairs of Vans. As much of a badass as I thought I was, now sober, I had no defense against kindness and as it turned out, neither would my son.

Things slowly started to improve for us. I got a job, bought a car and we finally moved out of that shelter. However, due to Rikki's early deprivation, by the time he was in his twenties he was a full-blown sneakerhead. He would spend hours on the Internet combing the airwaves for the release date of limited edition Nikes. And before I could say "OCD" an entire wall of his room was stacked with shoeboxes all the way to the ceiling. Just like a drug-seeking addict, my son was spending all his hard-earned money on high-end shoes.

I first became aware of the sneaker culture in the '80s. That's when Nike convinced everyone that a pair of Air Jordan's could make you fly through the air. Shoes directly linked to a favorite basketball player became a status symbol. Celebrity branding gave kids prestige while generating billions of dollars of revenue for Nike.

Over the next decade Rikki spent thousands amassing a collection of sneakers in every style, color and brand imaginable. Every outfit he wore was color coordinated to directly complement the 'shoe'. This continued until his early thirties, when Rikki started feeling depressed. As a photographer of beautiful women it no longer held the same satisfaction that it once had. It felt meaningless.

One day I got a call from Rikki telling me he couldn't sleep the night before. He said he tossed and turned until his gaze landed on the boxes of shoes against the wall and he bolted straight up in his bed.

"Look how many shoes I have and I don't even wear half of them," he said to himself.

Thinking back on Becky's kindness all those years before, Rikki recalled how getting those new Vans made him feel more confident and self-assured. Suddenly, he knew what he wanted to do. The next day Rikki loaded the back of his Ford Explorer with shoes and drove until he saw someone sleeping on the sidewalk. Approaching the still figure, Rikki said a faint, "hello?"

"Oh, hey man," seeing he had a visitor, the bald man pushed himself up. "My name is Phoenix. Have a seat."

Rikki sat down facing him. He said the area was littered with fast-food wrappers, bottles and empty cans of beer. The smell of urine and alcohol hung densely in the air. Loose change was scattered all around him on the ground.

"This is all I have left in the world," Phoenix told him, his voice cracking as he swept the coins closer with cupped hands.

"Wow man. I'm really sorry... could you use a pair of shoes?"

Unfortunately, Phoenix wore a size thirteen and all Rikki had were size tens.

"Here man, take my sweatshirt," Rikki said, peeling it off.

Phoenix took the gray hoodie and put it on. Suddenly still, he gazed upward like he was listening to something. Rikki stared at the thin layer of dirt that covered his neck and face like a second skin.

"How are things going with your father?" Phoenix finally asked.

It was just two weeks before that Rikki's dad had a massive heart attack and ended up in the ICU.

"That's really weird you should mention that," Rikki replied. "He just got out of the hospital."

"You need to call him," he said, the way a father might tell his son.

Rikki nodded thoughtfully and said he would.

"Hey man, what do you do for work?" Phoenix inquired.

"I'm a photographer."

Lifting his face to the sky again, Phoenix closed his eyes.

Feeling awkward, Rikki wondered if he should just leave.

"Okay, I'm going to tell him," Phoenix said, meeting his gaze.

"You need to put your pictures out there. People need to see your work."

Rikki was well aware that he was afraid of taking risks but didn't have a clue how to change that shortcoming in himself.

After talking a good thirty minutes, Rikki asked if he could take a photograph.

"Sure man," Phoenix said, with a smile.

Squatting down, Rikki took several shots capturing images of him in his new gray hoodie.

Then Rikki said he had to go but felt sort of sad, like he was leaving his new friend.

Once back in the car Rikki posted a photograph on Instagram with a caption of what had just occured. Within minutes one of his followers replied that he had some barely worn Nikes, size 13 he could come pick up.

For weeks after that, Rikki drove the streets of Los Angeles giving out shoes to those in need. If the person didn't mind, he'd take a before and after photograph and post it on Instagram. Rikki's friends asked how they could help and soon boxes of shoes started coming in from all over the country.

2015-08-10-1439245808-992717-10690140_823768104328144_1759550479458882834_n.jpg Photo: Rikki Mendias

For a year now Rikki has been on a mission. He turned Hav A Sole into a nonprofit and was featured by Nikon as a photographer who uses his craft to give back. He has donated shoes to local shelters, skid row and to homeless youth centers. Even more gratifying was when Rikki and I were able to go back to CLARE Foundation to give everyone there a new pair of shoes.

Ancient Greek mythology portrays the Phoenix as a magical bird with blue eyes that shine like sapphires and long golden plumage. The bird is said to live for hundreds of years before it claps its wings, causing it to burst into a ball of fire and die. But a few days later the Phoenix rises from the ashes, even more radiant than before, ready to start its new life.

Just like I had to hit a bottom before I got sober, Rikki had to endure his own fire to burn through his feelings of scarcity and lack in order to find out what he was meant to do.

Today, when I ask Rikki what's the best part of starting Hav A Sole, he tells me:
"I get so much more from giving one pair of shoes than I ever did in owning hundreds."

2015-08-10-1439245919-64748-10801473_824163674288587_8814634013219486383_n.jpg Photo: Rikki Mendias