Tuesday, April 26, 2011
By James Lomuscio
Sometimes, individuals who decide to give back via charitable work take months, if not years, to find the right social service project.
Ken Bernhard receives shoe donations from Staples sophomore Maddie Saveliff at Westport Town Hall. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
Other times, it’s a split second decision. The latter has been the case with Westport attorney G. Kenneth Bernhard. He has been inspired twice just sitting in front of the television.
“I was just sitting on the couch two years ago watching (CBS Evening News with) Katie Couric when I heard that dental care for children was one of the first things to suffer from the recession,” he recalled.
The wheels began turning, and through cooperation with Barbara Butler, Westport’s director of human services, Bernhard was able to launch “Smiles.”
He wrote to area dentists and convinced 14 of them to donate their professional services for checkups, cleanings and fillings. The end result: 172 children from Bridgeport, Norwalk, Fairfield, Westport and Weston received free dental care.
“There were even some adults, too,” recalled Butler.
Two months ago another bolt of inspiration hit Bernhard as he in front of the television, again watching Couric. He saw a report about shoeless children in India.
He said he also learned the disturbing fact that as many as 300 million children worldwide are without shoes.
Bernhard also heard about of Soles4Souls, a Nashville, Tenn. nonprofit group that collects shoes for worldwide distribution.
The group gathers shoes for all ages, footwear donated by manufacturers, retailers and individuals who no longer wear them, shoes that would otherwise wind up in a landfill.
In its five-year history, Soles4Souls has distributed 12 million pairs of shoes, according to its literature. It also states that more than 1.5 billion pairs of shoes lay idle in American closets.
“I said, what the heck,” said Bernhard. “I know Westporters have a lot of shoes, and spring is a good time to unload your closet.”
So, he contacted Soles4Souls and decided to launch a group locally. Bernhard, a former Westport state representative and former town attorney, also contacted First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and received permission to have a cardboard donation box set up at Town Hall.
He did the same at the town halls in Weston and Wilton, towns where he currently serves as town attorney, as well as at the Westport law firm where he works, Cohen and Wolf.
“It’s a fun project, and it’s all turn key once you connect the dots,” he said.
So far, he has collected more than 50 pairs in Westport, having already emptied out the box once.
On Monday, he was joined at Town Hall by Maddie Saveliff, a Staples High School sophomore, who, working with Staples’ students, has joined forces with Bernhard.
“We’re raising awareness,” said Maddie, noting more than 100 pairs have been collected at Staples. “The students will bring in their old shoes, pairs, or just one.”
Old, damaged shoes will be recycled into new ones, Bernhard said, and those in good condition will go as is to the needy.
Soles4Souls services more than 125 countries, including the United States, Honduras, Iraq, Guatemala, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Uganda, Peru, Thailand and Nepal.
“It (the donation box) will be here until May 21, and then I’m going to arrange to have them shipped to the Soles4Souls distribution center in Alabama,” said Bernhard.
He also plans to make a personal shoe delivery when he travels with his 16-year-old grandson Guthrie in July to Costa Rica.
Considering the donations so far, Bernhard had high praise for his hometown.
“Westport is a very generous community,” he said. “All you have to do is open up the opportunity for them to respond, and they do it overwhelmingly. That’s one of the big pluses of living here.”
Posted 04/26/11 at 09:30 AM
Kudos Ken - you continue to be a role model in our community, and we are lucky to have you! Tracy Flood, CLASP Homes