Small But Mighty: 17-Year-Old Saves Soles (and Feet)

18-year-old Indian girl has donated 28,000 shoes over the last five years

Sia Godika was 13 when she noticed the barefoot children of construction workers at a building site near her house in the upscale Koramangala district of Bangalore, India.

“Their feet were bare. Cracked. Hard. Dirty. Bleeding,” reflects Sia, now 17. “They were just walking around that construction site like it was an everyday practice for them.” And it was: In that moment, Sia realized the troubling contrast to her own privilege.

“I went back home, looked at my own feet and thought, Wow, I’m 13 years old. My feet are so tender. These children are seven or eight.” She describes opening her closet doors and seeing shoes—many of which hadn’t been worn for months or years—piled up high. She headed to her mother’s closet next, literally dusting off cobwebs from some shoes. Then she rushed to give them all away to the children she saw at the construction site.

Later that year, with the help of her parents and community volunteers, Sia founded Sole Warriors, a charity dedicated to providing footwear to those in need, epitomized by its motto: “Donate a sole, save a soul.”

The idea, which started as a dinner conversation with her parents, quickly grew. After she spread the word with posters and WhatsApp groups, inquiries from people who wanted to help came flooding in. For months, Sia was juggling schoolwork and her new passion project. “I was up till 2 a.m. creating Excel sheets to see which apartment buildings we could tackle [for donations] and contacting people.”

Now in its fifth year, the organization runs distribution drives in which Sole Warriors collects used footwear, refurbishes it (with the help of an international cobbler chain) and donates the finished products to people in need.

That need, says Sia, is endless. In a world where the poorest half of the population owns just two percent of the wealth, an estimated 300 million people can’t afford footwear. Of the nearly 24 billion shoes made every year, more than 90 percent end up in landfills.

In its first distribution drive, Sole Warriors collected and gave out 700 pairs of shoes. Today that number stands around 28,000 across four countries, including the United States, China and Liberia, thanks to the hard work of a core team of about 80 volunteers.

But the organization’s growth wasn’t without its challenges. When it came to looking for collaborators, such as a company that would do the refurbishments free of charge (repairing any wear and tear and cleaning up the footwear to look like new), Sia faced one obstacle after another before finding a partner in India’s Pressto Cobbler.

“Being a 13-year-old, I did face a lot of bias because at my age, people were less willing to hear me out,” says Sia.

In recognition of her impact, in 2021 Sia was given the Diana Award, given to people aged nine to 25 in memory of the late Princess of Wales. Awarded by a U.K.-based charity of the same name, it’s one of the most prestigious honours a young person can receive for social action or humanitarian work. But her work isn’t done. “Our goal has always been to touch a million feet,” she says.

Next, read about an 18-year-old expert in aerospace cybersecurity.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada