MILWAUKEE — Bleary-eyed but filled with gratitude, Diane Studer looked on as Marquette University’s women’s basketball team took the court for its Feb. 4 game against Pittsburgh.

mucoachMarquette Women’s basketball coach Terri Mitchell is barefoot on the sidelines of the Golden Eagles game against Georgia Tech at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee on Nov. 19, 2011, to draw attention to the Soles for Jesus charity which collects shoes for needy people in Africa. (Submitted photo by Maggie Casey, Marquette Athletics photographer)Studer was jet-lagged. She had just returned from her fifth mission trip to Africa, where she helped hand out shoes to needy people through Soles for Jesus, the charity she founded two years ago.

Studer and MU Coach Terri Mitchell, a Catholic, cheer for one another. That night, the Golden Eagles registered an easy victory, and Studer came away with barrels full of shoes – more than 400 pairs – donated by Marquette fans.

To call attention to the charity, Mitchell coached barefoot at a game earlier this season. Georgia Tech Coach MaChelle Joseph also went barefoot. Assistant coaches from both teams wore special sneakers that they donated following the game.

“They’ve definitely been supporters and friends since almost the beginning,” Studer said of Mitchell and her staff.

For Mitchell, in her 16th season as Marquette’s head coach, the decision to get involved came quickly after she and Studer first met at an event called Women in Worship.

Mitchell said she wanted to do “whatever I could to help,” so she began volunteering at the Soles for Jesus warehouse on Milwaukee’s northwest side. She liked what she saw, and has brought the whole team to help out, too.

“It’s natural – Marquette is all about service,” said Mitchell.

Soles for Jesus was founded after Studer went to Ethiopia on “your regular short-term mission trip” with five other women from Life Church, an Assemblies of God church in Germantown. The women had noticed how few people had decent shoes, and Studer said she was called by Jesus to address the need.

In short order, Soles for Jesus filed for 501(c)(3) status and secured warehouse space. Soon after its website went live in December 2009, the group began receiving shipments of shoes from across the country. A church in Virginia, for example, sent boxes with more than 500 pounds of shoes.

“The Lord is serious about what we are doing,” said Studer, 39, who lives in Menomonee Falls. She left her job with an investment firm and now volunteers full-time as executive director of Soles for Jesus.

The Marquette shoe drive and barefoot game were Mitchell’s idea, Studer said.

If you want to help:
New or gently worn shoes can be donated at the Marquette women’s final home game
4 p.m. Feb. 25 vs. Connecticut, at the Al McGuire Center,
770 N. 12th St.
Cash contributions will help defray shipping costs.
For information:

“As a new organization, we haven’t even had a chance to reach out,” said Studer. “It’s been people coming to us with their ideas. I can’t take any credit. It was all Terri and her team wanting to do it.”

The women on Studer’s first mission trip had taken some blankets and clothing to donate, then decided to leave their extra shoes behind, too. Four times since then, groups of about 12 people have packed as many pairs as possible in their luggage; almost 300 pairs were transported by Studer and others on the most recent trip.

Soles for Jesus also has sent four shipping containers filled with shoes, with two more on their way soon. A 20-foot container holds about 8,000 pairs.

Besides the Marquette effort, shoes have been collected locally by numerous school groups, companies and a variety of churches. Dr. Comfort, a therapeutic footwear company headquartered in Mequon, gave 100 pairs.solesMarquette University students Elizabeth Spratt, left, and Katie Strelzyk accept shoe donations from Dee Tibbs, right, from Taylor Mill, Ky., before the Marquette University women’s basketball game at the Al McGuire Center on Saturday, Feb. 4. Tibbs is the mother of Marquette varsity basketball player Lauren Tibbs. The donations were for the Soles for Jesus initiative to collect shoes for people in Africa. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)

Catholic parish and school donors have included St. Dominic, Brookfield; St. Agnes, Butler; St. Matthew, Oak Creek; and St. John Vianney, Brookfield. The Brownie troop at Queen of Apostles, Pewaukee, also gave shoes.

“The heart of God is so much bigger than just Catholics or Lutherans or Methodists,” said Studer. “I believe it’s in his heart that all of us work together.”

About 20 percent of the shoes donated end up with local charities because they are not suited to use in Africa – high heels and winter boots, for instance.

Soles for Jesus plans to focus on about five African countries over the next three years, including Ethiopia, whose population includes 4.2 million orphans, many of whom live on the streets.

“There is tremendous need everywhere we look. You can become paralyzed by the enormity of the need or you can choose to do something about it,” said Mitchell. “I refuse to do nothing.”

When Soles for Jesus volunteers are in Africa, distributing shoes has a Biblical quality to it.

“It’s a very moving process when we get on our hands and knees and wash people’s feet,” said Studer. “We size them, and put the shoes on their feet. It’s a great experience when we do it that way.”

Studer calls shoes “a ticket to school or work” for impoverished Africans, not to mention how decent shoes enhance people’s health and self-image.

Mitchell, who went on a mission trip to Rwanda in 2006, is eager to go to Africa with Soles for Jesus, possibly in 2013. She plans to go to South Africa this August to do prison ministry and speak in churches.

“Africa is where my heart tugs, and I don’t want to keep turning around and keep using my busyness as an excuse not to go,” she explained. “When I went to Rwanda, it just changed me, and I’ve been wanting to go back.

“I don’t know where any of this is leading me, but I’m in the moment, and I’m just going to keep on going.”