A pair of Dallas educators are helping to give students the resources to walk through life with confidence.
Jesse Acosta and Alejandra Zendejas, co-founders of the non-profit Pasos for Oak Cliff, have given away more than 1,000 pairs of shoes to students in the Dallas, Texas, area since August 2020. The Spanish word “pasos” translates to "steps," a nod to their Mexican heritage.
Acosta is a teacher at Justin F. Kimball High School in Oak Cliff, a neighborhood in Dallas, where a majority of the students are economically disadvantaged, according to US. News & World Report. As a graduate of the school, he knows how big sneaker culture is to its students. He noticed that students with visibly worn-out shoes and those unable to keep up with trends were frequently bullied. One student stuck out to him prominently.
“My very first year as a teacher at Kimball, I had a student that when he would walk, his sole would just come apart from the rest of the shoe. The only part that was still glued was the front of it, right by the toe area,” Acosta told "Good Morning America."
Bullying can have negative effects on a student’s grades, attendance, and self-esteem, according to StopBullying.gov. Acosta became determined to help students who were picked on because of what they wore to school, as he had been in his childhood.
When schools closed in spring 2020 because of the COVID-19 shutdown, Acosta found himself with more time to devise a plan of action. He teamed up with his girlfriend, Zendejas, who is a math tutor, fellow Oak Cliff native and self-described sneaker nerd, to register Pasos for Oak Cliff as a nonprofit the following summer.
Acosta initially played with the idea of giving shoes away as prizes for classroom performance, but he wanted a more equitable solution. He started posting on social media and reaching out to his co-workers to find students who struggled financially. Now, he communicates with schools across the Dallas area directly to organize shoe drives and identify students who could use a confidence boost.
“Not everybody can afford to be part of that sneaker culture. That's not the students fault. That's just a situation they are currently living,” said Acosta. “We try to help other students who are economically disadvantaged right now because their parents maybe lost a job to COVID or because they have come from a low-income household.”
To find shoes for their giveaways, Acosta and Zendejas like to shop at Nike, their favorite brand. With a budget of about $30 per shoe, they hand-pick sneakers from outlet stores offering steep discounts. Other times, they’ll get lucky and tap into the resale market for more high-end items. Regardless of cost, the two keep up with trends to give students shoe styles that they can be proud to wear.
Acosta and Zendejas started off buying the sneakers with their own money, but now Pasos operates through donated funds and a grant from Amazon that allowed them to expand giveaways to other cities like Austin and San Antonio. The organization also plans to give away $10,000 in scholarships for college-bound Oak Cliff students, he said.
As Pasos grows, the co-founders plan to move into a building to have more storage space for the sneakers and host educational programs for greater impact in the community.
“We're just doing things and approaching the inequity gap a little differently from other nonprofits,” said Acosta. “We’re borrowing from and being influenced by the community that we live in, especially since we both love shoes. it's worked out so far and we're definitely blessed for that.”