Helping underserved students, one “step” at a time

To excel in school, our region's youth need role models and dreams to help to motivate, educate and empower young learners. The fact that students are in crisis is more than apparent on multiple levels. A study released last week by McKinsey & Co. estimated that the shift to remote school in the spring set students back by up to five months.


In addition, students living in poverty are often “invisible” to many school administrations, especially in affluent communities, with their particular struggles displaced under the broad definition of poverty. The latest American Community Survey estimates more than 40% of children in the city of Cincinnati — more than 26,000 kids — live below the federal poverty level.


"The biggest misconception about teaching students who live in poverty is that they, or their parents, do not care or do not value education," says Angela Houston, a twenty year veteran of local education here in Cincinnati. Currently, Houston is the founder and chief executive officer of Empower Moves Consulting Services.


"When in reality, it is the education system that has failed them year after year. We make students attempt to retain information in 40 to 55 minute increments each and every day,” she continues. “We read them stories about white ‘saviors’ or ‘the classics’ that are not classic to them. We treat them like adults and expect them to grow up and get tough when they are children. We also do not give them the coping skills, love, and security to help them thrive.”


School-related gaps are exacerbated in the Black community where individuals are more chronically unemployed and underemployed, are less healthy, and have access to fewer healthcare resources, die much younger, and much more likely to be sent to jail for periods significantly longer than other racial/ethnic groups.


Enter Bigger Than Sneakers. Since its inception in 2018, Bigger Than Sneakers (BTS) has carved out a new philanthropic space in sneaker culture to help our region's hard-to-reach and underserved youth through workshops, events, mentorship, and community initiatives.


"We started BTS in 2018 mainly to leverage our relationships in the shoe and professional sports fields to give back to the community in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky," says BTS co-founder Tammie Scott.


Several years ago, as an employee of a sports marketing firm, Scott, who splits her time between Cincinnati and New York City, along with Matt Tomamichel, owner of Corporate, a local Cincinnati footwear and apparel retailer, developed BTS. The purpose of this nonprofit is to empower and inspire leaders of tomorrow, targeting area kids in poverty and thus give them a strong sense of purpose for achieving in school.


The same year BTS was formed, Johns Hopkins University released a study showing that Black students who have just one Black teacher during elementary school are more likely to graduate high school.


Despite this, in Ohio, non-white teachers made up 5.64% of the workforce in the 2018­–19 school year, while students of color represented 31% of the student population. Kentucky's demographics were similar. Just 4.8% of Kentucky teachers were non-white, while 24.2% of students were minorities.


"Sometimes students have bigger things to worry about than grades and their parents putting them on punishment," explained Houston. "They have to worry about surviving the streets or surviving the abuse in their homes. They have to work on an empty stomach with dirty clothes on and wonder if their peers can smell them. They have to take care of siblings, cooking for them, making sure they have a bath, waking them up, walking them to and from the bus stop or school. It’s not that their parents do not care. Their parents are working two and three jobs or working the overnight shift just to make ends meet."


Making a difference, one “step” at a time


Over the last year, BTS has provided resources to kids in need, partnering with local organizations like Boys & Girls Club of Greater Cincinnati, UpSpring, Bethany House, and Girls Health Period.


"It was important to us to partner with like-minded organizations; organizations who share our mission," says Scott. "We have worked with these great organizations to raise funds — through things like raffles for sneaker releases — to provide toiletries, laptops, mentorship, and sneakers to those youth most in need and those who have been affected by COVID-19."


The organization gains its most money from their annual fundraiser, the Sneaker Ball, a highly anticipated black tie and sneaker celebration that features art, live music, and engaging activities. Its first ball, held in 2018, was a big success, but because of the pandemic, 2019's ball, which was scheduled to be held in May at the Cincinnati Museum Center, was placed on hold.


"We are sad not to host the Sneaker Ball this year," says Scott. "But during the pandemic, we have tried to step up and survive where we could. We are regrouping and planning for a strong 2021 so that we can host the Sneaker Ball in the upcoming year."


"With the success so far," says Scott, "we are taking some time in 2020 to plan ahead. One thing that we discovered was that we needed to have a full-time staff member dedicated to advancing our organization's mission. We have recently hired a full-time executive director, Natalie Morgan, to enhance our mentoring efforts and incorporate things like job training to our mission to help the region's underserved population."


Right now through December 18, BTS is accepting new sneakers that will be donated to UpSpring. Donated sneakers can be dropped off the Corporate sneaker store located at 2643 Erie Avenue. In addition, hospitality workers who have been laid off due to the spread of COVID-19 can apply to receive free sneakers for their children.
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Read more articles by Kareem A. Simpson.

Raised in the inner city of Covington, Kentucky, Kareem Simpson is an author, innovator, community enthusiast, military veteran, serial entrepreneur, foodie and lover of all things creative.