It takes exceptional individuals to turn a painful experience into a meaningful journey. Just to cite a couple examples: Frida Kahlo began her painting career after her nearly fatal bus accident; in another part of the world, a French journalist with locked-in syndrome, Jean-Dominique Bauby, wrote an entire book by using the only physical ability he had left: blinking. While athlete Greg Woodburn fortunately only experienced a fracture in his hip, he turned his inability to run into an opportunity to create a nonprofit that would provide running shoes for those in need. In just a few years, the inspiring track & field champion transformed a simple concept he developed in high school into a serious organization, Give Running. To this day, the inspiring University of Southern California undergraduate has collected more than 7,600 pairs of shoes and has already travelled to the other side of the world to share his love of running.
Would you like to explain the concept of Give Running to our readers?
Give Running promotes a joy of running by donating new and used running and athletic shoes to disadvantaged youth both in our community and in distant nations. From the beginning, one of our goals has been to donate locally and globally, trying to strengthen our communities here in the United States as well as around the world in order to strengthen ties across countries.
And you’re an athlete yourself, right?
I’ve been running since I was six years old.
What do you like the most about it?
Even though I love the personal joys I can get from running, what I really like about it is also the sense of camaraderie and team spirit that is always very present.
Was it in high school that the idea of “giving back” emerged?
Exactly. My freshman year, I suffered a stress fracture in my hip, which meant that I had to take most of the year off. One of the tough things was that I literally could not make it heal faster; rest was what I needed. I could not do anything to improve my hip. Moreover, my sophomore year I got knee problems. Running was taken away from me, which made me realize how important it had become in my life.
That had to be a tough experience…
My parents and my sister, Dallas, have always been really supportive, and at that time they encouraged me to put the situation into perspective by talking about what other people were going through. I knew that while I was injured right now, I would eventually get healthy and be able to run, compete, and race again. Meanwhile, there were kids out there who were not able to run – not because they were injured, but just because they didn’t have a good pair of shoes. One of the great things about running is that it doesn’t require a lot of equipment; running shoes can go a long way. I decided that the time I couldn’t spend running I would spend sharing my love of running with other people.
How did you start?
Small. I collected my own used shoes, my family’s, my teammates’, and then got a collection box set up in our town’s local running store so that other runners could donate their shoes. This was in October of 2006, and I wanted to clean and donate 100 pairs of shoes by December. I collected over 500 pairs of shoes in that period of time.
It made me realize the potential of my project. I decided that instead of having this be a one-time effort, it could easily turn into a year-round endeavor. I continued to encourage more people to donate; the local newspaper did a write-up about me and it snowballed from there!
How do you get the shoes to the people who need them?
From the beginning, we worked with a San Diego-based nonprofit, Sports Gift, which distributes all kinds of sports equipment to NGOs, programs, and developing nations such as Haiti. We used them to help us donate shoes. Since I’ve been here at the University of Southern California, I spent my winter break in Mali and got to give the shoes in person.
How many shoes have you received as of today?
We’re collected over 7,659 pairs of shoes today for Give Running.
When did you have the idea of going all the way to Mali?
I actually went there through the USC Africa Health Initiative, which is an alternative winter break program. For about two weeks, a bunch of us were in a small village called Sikoro and we were helping the villagers to build a community garden, which could provide women a means of economic income. We got some duffel bags and brought 112 pairs of shoes and socks with us.
What were the villagers’ reactions to the shoes?
They were ecstatic! Even though many of them had shoes or sandals, they were in really bad condition. When we were giving out the pair, we tried to guess people’s shoe size, but they were so happy that they would tell us it fit perfectly even if it was way too small or way too big for them. When we tried to take the shoe back from them to get a different pair that would fit better, they would say, “No! No!” [laughs] The first pair I gave out was to the village chief. As I was putting the pair of socks and the pair of shoes on his feet, my hands were literally shaking; even though I had played the moment over and over again in my mind, it was a scary and touching experience. Some of the women started dancing.
Apart from that initial reaction, did you get to see hands-on the impact that the shoes had on the villagers?
The greatest run in my life was the day after I donated shoes in Sikoro. I went on a five-mile run, I definitely got some weird stares during the first laps, like: “What’s this guy doing?” Then, after a few laps, some kids went running with me. Then all of a sudden there were ten, fifteen, thirty… a constant group of running partners who would run for a few laps, stop, and then let others join for the next one. Running with them was a real affirmation of what I was trying to do and a direct proof that Give Running was working. It was incredible to see how excited they all were.
How can our readers contribute to your success?
If you have running athletic shoes to donate, we always need you! We also are a 501(c)(3), which means that we rely solely on donations, which we put towards buying new shoes. Since smaller sizes are not often being donated, we often have to purchase children’s shoes so that if someone has a younger sibling in the family, they too can have a pair. We also use the money to buy socks, as I mentioned before.
How does one donate money or shoes?
People can go to our website for donations or make a check out to Give Running Inc. If they’re directly donating shoes, they can spot out locations across the US to drop them off – if they shoot me an email with their address, I can also help them figure it out. Another larger and more lasting impact people can have – given that they have time – is to start a collection box or a Give Running chapter in their own area. I can give them information on how I started, tips, and locations to set up collection bins. If someone is in Florida, Washington, or anywhere, and if they feel like their community could benefit from it, I would encourage them to do so.