Jefferson Awards: Doctor's family provides shoes for homeless

Each year on the day before Thanksgiving, a charity run by local orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon Stephen Conti and his family gives new shoes to homeless people and provides them with free foot care.

This past year, the Contis' Our Hearts to Your Soles, working with a Nashville, Tenn.-based charity called Soles4Souls and Minneapolis manufacturer Red Wing Shoes, gave 8,000 pairs of work boots to homeless people in 41 states.

Locally, some 400 Pittsburgh people who gathered at Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center, Downtown, also got medical screenings and two pairs of socks. The latter came from a new charity, Socks2Soles, which was started by Dr. Conti's younger son, Chris, 16, a junior at North Allegheny High School. The rest of the family comprises Matt, 20, a junior at the University of Notre Dame; Laura, 18, a freshman also at Notre Dame; and their mother, Carol.

Dr. Conti, 51, of Franklin Park, is one of seven local finalists for the Most Outstanding Volunteer Award in the 2009 Jefferson Awards for Public Service program. The finalists will be honored at the Jefferson Awards reception and ceremony at Carnegie Music Hall on Feb. 11.

The winner will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer. The program is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with the sponsorship of Highmark, the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.

The PNC Foundation will donate $1,000 to Our Hearts to Your Soles on behalf of Dr. Conti.

"Our Hearts to Your Soles is truly an inspired effort," said Stephanie Waite, media relations specialist for the West Penn Allegheny Health System and the person who nominated Dr. Conti for the Jefferson Awards competition.

Nice as they are, though, honors aren't what Dr. Conti is interested in.

"The first motivation I have is a tremendous desire to give back because I've been incredibly fortunate," he said. "I have one of the biggest orthopedic practices in the area. For that I feel truly blessed.

"The second motivation is a little more selfish: I'm a big believer that my kids grow up to be what they see, not what they hear," he added. "I do it partly for my fulfillment, but it's a lot to teach my kids to do it. It brings us together as a family. I think what I've shown them is it's possible to do it, to grow it. ... Nobody knew five years ago it would grow into a national organization."

That certainly wasn't the case in the mid-1990s, when Dr. Conti teamed with Ted Colaizzi, a maker of orthotics and other shoe modifications, to take surplus shoes to the Jubilee Kitchen, Uptown, and do basic fittings on homeless men.

"I did that for a couple years, and then for a couple of years it went by the wayside," Dr. Conti said. "Then when Matt was volunteering at Allegheny General Hospital, he was hooked into the wound center."

The son recalled the project that Mr. Colaizzi and his father had done at Jubilee, and "he thought we could do something like it," Dr. Conti said.

They did their first Hearts to Soles at Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side, bringing medical people and shoes to the homeless.

Matt wanted the charity to be official, and he wanted it to grow, but he needed help from his dad for both.

"I couldn't be on the official document -- I was too young," Matt said. Under Dr. Conti's name, they got the paperwork making Hearts to Soles a Pennsylvania nonprofit in 2004, and the first official event followed over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2006.

But doing this once a year wasn't enough, Matt said.

"I wanted it to be done nationally, more times a year. We did a couple more in Pittsburgh and then we branched out to Harrisburg and then we started to take it nationally."

A 10-state event took place on March 8, 2007. Then just before Thanksgiving that year, it went to 25 states, said Matt, who left for Notre Dame earlier that fall.

Enter Laura, Carol and Chris. That same year Our Hearts to Your Soles first partnered with Soles4Souls.

With Laura's involvement, Our Hearts to Your Soles acquired 501(c)(3) status -- the national tax-exemption for charitable organizations -- and expanded to 40 sites in 2008. Red Wing signed on to supply the work boots in time for the 2008 event.

Laura also was the member of the family who forged the partnership with Wayne Elsey, a former owner of a shoe company who heads Soles4Souls.

Each year, Dr. Conti recruits surgeons to work at new or already established events and heads raising funds from national and local businesses for shipping costs. He also annually asks Red Wing to continue its help and ship its shoes to Soles4Souls.

When Laura left to join Matt at Notre Dame, Dr. Conti said his wife took over such legwork as calling sites to get all the necessary details coordinated. "My wife is really the superstar of this thing," he said.

"We have Chris, and he expanded this year to 43 sites. But Chris doesn't want to duplicate, so he started the Socks2Soles program."

There certainly were a lot of phone calls to make in 2009, what with the teams of medical staff and boots that were sent to 43 participating sites.

But Dr. Conti isn't one to sit on his laurels.

The goal for next Thanksgiving is to reach all 48 continental states and possibly Canada or Mexico. "I have some orthopedic colleagues there. ... My job is to ask colleagues where we want to go to participate," he said.

It might be tougher for him to better his goal for his kids. They've learned their lesson about giving back very well.

"I felt blessed I had been given a roof over my head, clothes to wear, that I wanted to give back," said Matt in a separate interview. "I wanted to do something in which I could give back and feel I was making a difference because I had been given so much."

Pohla Smith: or 412-263-1228. First Published February 2, 2010 5:00 AM


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