Changing the World, One Sole at a Time

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Next Up, Building an Orphanage

By Hollie Deese

Olivia Wright, 17, was just 9-years-old when she watched a Feed the Children’s documentary about the Appalachian Mountains with her family and noticed none of the kids were wearing shoes. It was an observation that didn’t sit well with the compassionate young girl and she was determined to do something about it.

“Like every kid, I had a really big heart,” she says. “I was raised in the church and my parents had always instilled into me the knowledge that we’re here to make a difference, and to help other people. I knew, with a lot of help, we were going to give them shoes.”

And so, with the help of her family, Wright organized her very first shoe drive for her new non-profit, Tennessee H.U.G.S., Inc. (Help Us Give Shoes). She went to the children’s director of the First Baptist Church of Hendersonville and told him her mission – to give shoes and smiles – and the community came together by donating more than 700 pairs of shoes.

H.U.G.S. has grown a lot since then, but so has Wright. With a continued mission of “shoeing the world,” she collects gently-used shoes and then travels to locations across the U.S. to fit recipients. So far, she has collected and distributed more than 100,000 pair of shoes for people through H.U.G.S, providing footwear for children and adults in thirteen countries and in ten U.S. cities including Washington, Atlanta and New York City.

Wright also still holds an annual Back-to-School shoe give-away for children living in the Appalachian Mountains, ensuring every child leaves the event with a perfectly fitting, like-new pair of sneakers. She even sends shoes around the world via friends and missionaries.

“In January we reached our 100,000 pair of shoes mark,” she says.

“My parents had always instilled into me the knowledge that we’re here to make a difference, and to help other people.”

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Building an orphanage

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-2-40-49-pmRecently, Wright says she has broadened her mission statement to really make a point to emphasize the smiles part. So this year, she is starting an orphanage in India.

“It’s so surreal thinking about it because these kids are just my heart,” she says. “And it’s such a simple idea, to give them a home.”

Wright says from the moment she started her charity, her mom encouraged her to make a list of goals for the long term. And creating an orphanage was always on that list.

“My little brother was adopted from Russia when he was 18-months-old, so adoption was always really near to my heart,” she says. “My brother is my best friend and I love him so much. So, I knew that I wanted to give kids like him, Sergei, a chance at having a family too, and at having happiness. That was our goal then. Mom was like ‘It’s kind of far-fetched, but okay.’”

So when Wright was going over those initial goals last year and saw the orphanage, she knew immediately is was time.

“My heart was really into it and I felt really called to go at it,” she says. “Everything worked out amazingly. I was immediately contacted by a pastor in India who also wanted to start an orphanage, but didn’t have the ability to because he didn’t have the funds behind him.”

Wright sent an ambassador from H.U.G.S to meet with him and meet the children who would be in the orphanage, the H.U.G.S. Forthward Home, and there will be three children in the home to start.

Work Honored

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-2-41-01-pmWright’s good deeds are not only touching the people she helps, but it is being recognized on a national level when Wright was recently named a 2016 honoree by the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes. Each year, the Barron Prize celebrates twenty-five inspiring, public-spirited young people – fifteen winners and ten honorees – who have made a significant, positive difference to people and the planet.

The Barron Prize was founded in 2001 by author T.A. Barron and named for his mother, Gloria Barron.

“It’s so unexpected,” she says of the award. “And really it is going to give a lot of recognition to H.U.G.S. and what we’re doing, and really get our mission statement out there. They’re giving us help with getting more press, and we always need more shoes.”

In fact, next on Wright’s list is getting warehouse space for the shoes, a goal she hopes to achieve by the end of the year. Currently, Wright cleans and disinfects each pair of shoes after they are delivered to her home before she sorts them into one of three storage units before shipping them off.

“My mom and I, and groups of volunteers, will go down there every so often, about three times a week, and organize the shoes, get them prepped and ready to go,” she says.

The former Hendersonville Christian Academy student spends so much time on her charity now between traveling and fundraising, she is now homeschooled while dual-enrolled at Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin.

“A lot of times I’ll do my schoolwork at nighttime, while I’m having engagements during the day. It’s more flexible,” she says.

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