BANGOR — “I think we’re a parish that really has a heart for the needy. The parishioners are the most generous people I’ve seen.”

The words of Susan Shaw, a long-time parishioner at St. Mary Church in Bangor, are equal parts grateful and incredulous when she considers what “My New Shoes” has become at St. Paul the Apostle Parish.

Shaw started the program 11 years ago after a friend told her the story of a teacher who had bought sneakers for a student after seeing the soles of his shoes flapping in the rain as he walked. She also remembered that her aunt had once told her about a parish in Colorado that had a store which provided shoes.

“I thought, ‘Gee, why can’t we do something similar, but not a store, more of a supplying to all of the students at our parish.’”

Each September, tags with shoe sizes are made available at parish churches (St. John Church, Bangor; St. Mary Church, Bangor; St. Joseph Church, Brewer; St. Teresa Church, Brewer; St. Matthew Church, Hampden; St. Gabriel Church, Winterport). The parishioners then buy the sneakers and bring them back to their respective churches.

This year, due to the pandemic, those not able to take a tag are invited to participate by purchasing any size youth athletic shoes or socks.

Tag or no tag, organizers ask that the donations be brought to one of the parish churches or offices by Sunday, Sept. 27.

Once the shoes are collected and organized, volunteers connect with representatives from area elementary and middle schools to assess the need.

“It’s huge for kids to have a pair of shoes on their feet that looks like those of the kids beside them,” said Jim Russell, a volunteer. “It gives that kid an opportunity to look like his peers, and that is huge for kids.”

Parishioners are also invited to buy socks or donate money to be used if there is a greater than anticipated demand for a certain size.

“Some people, if they can’t afford a pair of sneakers, they’ll give socks, and we really need them,” said Shaw. “Others will say, ‘I don’t know what to buy,’ and they’ll drop off a $20 bill.”

While “My New Shoes,” originally only served schools in Bangor and Brewer, the success of the program has allowed for expansion as sneakers now go to students in Baileyville, Carmel, Eddington, Glenburn, Hampden, Hermon, Holden, Indian Island, Kingman, Levant, Old Town, Orrington and Winterport.

“Usually, there isn’t much left at the end of the year. They’re all being given out, so that just says that hundreds of kids need them,” said Shaw.

Joel Bradgon, the physical education teacher at Downeast School in Bangor, has seen the difference the program makes.

“The students are very excited. They’ll come in and maybe they’re a size 2, and I might have three or four pairs in that size, and they get to pick which one they like the best. They particularly like the shoes that light up,” he said. “The need is out there, and it’s not isolated to just one town or one community. They’re very grateful.”

Organizers hope that the program which, according to Shaw, isn’t a difficult initiative to start and maintain, will spread to other areas in Maine.

“This is just dear to my heart,” said Shaw. “I usually get all teared up about it because I just think that we don’t realize what it does to a child to have something they usually don’t get.”

For more information or to learn how you can help, contact Shaw at 207-356-1802.