Charity in Action: St. Charles man's passion for sneakers has led to booming nonprofit
Cameron DeHaven of St. Charles hardly remembers a time when he didn't have bags of sneakers in his car. Sure, he is a self-described "sneaker head," but over the last year he has taken his passion to new heights.
Last year, DeHaven decided to turn his love of sneakers into something good. He started a nonprofit called Sneaker Heartz, with a mission of getting shoes on the feet of those who need them the most.
Together with a board of dedicated volunteers, DeHaven's organization has collected more than 6,000 pairs of shoes. Of those, he has donated more than 1,500 pairs to children and adults in the suburbs and Chicago, as well as to poorer communities in the Philippines, Mexico and Honduras.
DeHaven spent 12 years as a firefighter with the Geneva Fire Department, so helping others comes naturally to him. He now works in the emergency department at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva as a patient care technician and phlebotomist.
In January, at Northwestern's 41st annual Humanitarian Awards Program, where health system officials celebrate employees who have made extraordinary contributions to their communities, DeHaven was recognized with a Humanitarian Award.
"It was awesome," DeHaven said, "and totally unexpected."
At the ceremony, DeHaven noted that the organization had donated or recycled more than 3,000 shoes, or 1,500 pairs in its first eight months. He cited the numbers not just to show its growing reach, but to demonstrate its widespread support.
"If you love something and want to help someone, you make it happen," DeHaven said. "You'll be surprised at the support that will jump up around you."
DeHaven says he started out by placing 10 collection boxes at local places he knew, from St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Geneva and The House Pub in St. Charles, to fire stations in Geneva and Elburn, as well as friends' houses and, of course, his own.
"When we started, I was hoping for around 50 pairs," DeHaven says. "In three weeks, I had over 100 pairs, and in a few months I had more than 700 pairs."
Then came the decision of where to distribute them. DeHaven started out slowly, turning to inner city ball teams to receive shoes, starting with those in Chicago's West Englewood neighborhood.
Those contacts led him to the Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago, where he made a donation of shoes. Before long, his contact there asked DeHaven if he could provide shoes for a basketball team he was starting.
"That was one of my coolest life experiences ever, getting to see the team play," DeHaven says. "Afterward, they interviewed us in their broadcast studio."
His network keeps growing. Sneaker Heartz has made many donations to TriCity Family Services in Geneva, as well as the People's Resource Center of Wheaton and the Boys & Girls Club of Dundee Township in Carpentersville.
DeHaven also works behind the scenes with social workers at the local schools, including Batavia and Geneva high schools, as well as Geneva Middle School. School officials turn to the organization when individual emergencies arise.
Recently, a donation of 2,500 new cleats came in from Boombah, the custom manufacturer of uniforms, footwear and athletic equipment based in Yorkville. DeHaven intends to donate them to the teams in West Englewood, and 500 pairs to a soccer club in Kenya.
As word of the mission of Sneaker Heartz grows -- more than 900 people follow the charity on Facebook -- so does the need for shoes beyond sneakers. Luckily, the organization has collected lots of women's dress shoes, as well as some men's shoes.
Just last month, they donated 200 pairs of women's dress shoes to the Willow Creek Care Center in South Barrington, as well as to the Dress for Success program in Chicago, which helps women get back into the workforce.
After just one year, DeHaven says, they are starting to gain real traction, so much so that he now hopes to support underfunded programs in the schools.
"If I can take my passion and turn it into service," he says, "then it's proof that anybody can."