More Than Just Shoes

By Rabbi Steven Bayar

This is Rabbi Bayar’s most recent post for Rabbis Without Borders-My Jewish Learning. This post was published on March 6, 2015.

Meeting Ranya Kelly for the first time you would never guess that this quiet petite woman once brought a major corporation to its knees in the city of Denver. She never intended to be a controversial celebrity but, when you get to know her you will find that Ranya never backs away from a fight when she is in the right.

Several years ago she found herself in need of a good sized box to send out a gift. She went in back of a strip mall store that sold shoes to find such a box but, when she opened the dumpster, found 500 pair of brand new shoes instead. The store, and its parent company, had a policy to discard merchandise that did not sell after a certain amount of time.

Ranya took the shoes home and invited her family and friends to take what they wanted. But she still had hundreds of pairs of shoes left – and would not throw them out. She ended up driving to a homeless shelter to donate the shoes. There, she had an epiphany. As she put it, “I never knew about the shelters or the people who really needed anything. I grew up in an upper middle class family. I was never involved with poor people. There was a pregnant woman standing in the doorway, her pants dragging on the floor. She had a two or three year old in tow and had not shoes. It was the middle of January. I just couldn’t comprehend that somebody didn’t have a pair of shoes when I had just found 500 pair.”

Ranya went back to that dumpster and began collecting discarded shoes. She was caught, almost arrested for theft and almost sued. When they could not stop her the store began shredding the shoes to stop her.

Finally, after the press got involved and both sides began talking, Ranya was allowed to continue. Today, over one million shoes later, she has created an organization that brings stores which habitually discard unsold merchandise together with people who are in need. Ranya’s organization, the Redistribution Center, channels millions of dollar’s worth of materials every year.

I have known Ranya for more than twenty years and have facilitated redistribution programs in New Jersey, Mississippi and Kentucky. Opening the trucks and watching our “clients” see what is inside brings tears to our volunteer eyes. I remember one director of a program in Newark, New Jersey blessing us all – reminding us again and again how much life we were spreading around.

And sometimes I cry as well. In part I cry because I don’t realize how much a brand new pair of jeans means to a Mississippi teen who has to wear torn sweatpants because even now, years after Hurricane Katrina, the family can’t afford clothing. I cry because a Kentucky schoolchild will have a new backpack instead of a plastic garbage bag for her school supplies.

And I cry because as sensitized as I have become to the needs around us, I still live in an upper class community known for its wealth and high educational standards. I remember quite clearly when I approached a local minister to co-sponsor Ranya where we would be able to bring thousands of dollars of new clothing and household goods for those in need. He said, “There are no poor people in our town.”

Ranya will be here in May – come and find out about a truly saintly woman, and help fix the world.