Heart and Sole

Sneaker Heartz’s Cameron DeHaven helps community members take steps, big and small.

By Camille Cannon

July 29, 2019 10:00 AM

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Cameron DeHaven can remember the exact moment Sneaker Heartz was born. An avid sneaker head, DeHaven has been collecting kicks for 10 years. By 2018, he had amassed about 170 pairs in his collection, stacked floor-to-ceiling in his bedroom. “I woke up one morning and I felt guilty that I had all of these shoes when plenty of people don’t have even one solid pair,” says DeHaven, 38. “My first thought was to give them away,” he says, “or do a fundraiser.” After talking it over with longtime friend Jason Sandquist, who suggested DeHaven start a nonprofit, he did just that.

Since then, DeHaven estimates that Sneaker Heartz, a 501(c)(3) organization, has provided approximately 1,000 pairs of shoes to those in need. Sneaker Heartz organizes the donation of new and gently used shoes by providing donation boxes to locals businesses and teaming up with other organizations to host fundraisers. “If someone asks, we just try to find a way to get a box out to them,” says DeHaven. (The “we” is the Sneaker Heartz crew, comprising DeHaven, Sandquist and five friends who all share a love of sneakers.) What started as a handful of drop box locations has grown to about 20 since their first shoe drive in March. 

“I’ve always had a passion for helping people,” says DeHaven, who works full time as a PCT phlebotomist in the emergency room at the Delnor campus of Northwestern Hospital and part time as a firefighter with the Geneva Fire Department. “My days off are just driving [to deliver donations],” says DeHaven. “Whoever asks, we show up with what we have. My philosophy is ‘say yes, then figure it out.’” 

“He’s a very enthusiastic young man,” says Susie Rot-Barrto of Wrapped in Love, a nonprofit that provides resources to the homeless population in the Chicago area. Earlier this year, Rot-Barrto invited DeHaven to join her in distributing donations in Tent City and surrounding areas. “He said ‘Absolutely yes,’” says Rot-Barrto. “He brought two of his friends and a carload of shoes. We gave away everything that day.” The two have since made plans for more collaborations. “Whatever ideas I approach him with, he jumps right on it.” 

Sneaker Heartz crew member Olijuwon Davis (OD) helping size up a pair of sneakers for a homeless man in downtown Chicago. The man challenged him to a foot race right after. One-hundred-thirteen pairs were handed out that day.

This spring, Rot-Barrto connected DeHaven and the Sneaker Heartz crew with Kim, a single mom whose son, Colby, was preparing to compete in the regional Special Olympics. Kim had purchased a pair of running shoes on sale for Colby, only for them to fall apart before his big match. “Thinking about getting another pair of shoes wasn’t in my budget,” says Kim. Barrto informed DeHaven, who personally delivered not just a new pair of running shoes, but also an additional pair of sneakers for Colby. 

“Cameron is just an amazing young man. He really is a wonderful human being,” Kim says. “And to give a second pair of shoes to Colby. … Now he has another pair to wear when school starts in the fall. That takes the financial pressure off of me.” 

And while the name may emphasize, well, sneakers, Sneaker Heartz collects donations for all shoe types and sizes. “Some of the shelters we go to, some of the women and men need work shoes or church shoes,” DeHaven says. The organization also recently outfitted the entire basketball team of a youth detention center. And if donated shoes can’t be worn again? “We’ve found recycling programs that convert the shoes into material used on playgrounds,” DeHaven says. 

The biggest challenge Sneaker Heartz has faced is also its “biggest blessing,” according to DeHaven. Overwhelming community support has led to a lack of storage. Currently, DeHaven’s own garage is stuffed full of donated shoes. “I wasn’t prepared to have that many shoes,” he says with a laugh. “If someone gives me sizes, I have to drag out 30 bags of shoes on the front lawn.”

A lawn full of sneakers after the first week of having the Sneaker Heartz drop boxes out. The lawn was the only place they would fit. They would fill that same lawn four times over during the first, month-long sneaker drive in March.

Bigger than that stash of sneakers are the plans DeHaven has for the future of Sneaker Heartz. “I want anybody in the Chicago area, if they need shoes, they can contact us,” he says. “I also want to help other communities.” Friends are currently helping him prepare donations in Austin, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and parts of Africa and Mexico. “Having shoes on your feet is something you shouldn’t have to think about. I put myself in that mindset.”

Though shoe drives have become the Sneaker Heartz staple, DeHaven says there are plans to expand through the sale of merchandise, which is available for purchase online and at pop-up events. “Our main goal is to get to a point where we’re fundraising to support creativity for kids. That’s what binds the sneaker community. We love the creativity and collaborations. If a music class needs something, we want to be able to provide it. If teams can’t afford equipment, we’ll provide that.” 

When he’s not at one of his jobs, collecting or delivering shoes, coordinating with the crew or planning the next pop-up event, DeHaven says he’s at home working on Sneaker Heartz’s website and social media presence. 

“I don’t think about anything but helping people. I come home and I get to do one of my favorite passions. It’s all I can think about. I couldn’t wake up and just not do that. I don’t know what I would do all day.”