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TRAVERSE CITY Warm, dry feet: If you have them, chances are you don’t notice. If not, you may notice little else.

Such is the feet first philosophy behind Boots for Kids, a longstanding Traverse City push to get warm winter boots on every kid who needs them. Covering the basics can improve a child’s day from the ground up, said Don Schmuckal, the effort’s executive director.

He fielded a call from a Central Grade School social worker this week; recent snowfall found a few more kids coming to school without winter boots. That’s usually how it works, Schmuckal said: A teacher takes note, a phone call is made and boots are delivered.

This year it will be around 850 pairs of them.

“For me, it’s the stories the stories I hear and the ‘thank yous’ we get,” said Bill Golden, co owner of Golden Shoes. Golden buys the boots in bulk, and measures the kids’ feet. They buy quality boots, aiming to get two years of wear out of them for each child, plus a few more as they get passed on to siblings or other kids in need, he said.

Boots for Kids has grown since its 1959 beginning, when Blondies’ Restaurant owners Karen and Jerry Buell starting buying warm winter boots, hats, scarves and gloves for area kids in Grawn. The couple did it for 40 years. When the restaurant closed, the program walked on, Schmuckal said.

“The owners hated to see the program die, so we started up to keep the ball rolling,” said Schmuckal, whose family foundation The Art and Mary Schmuckal Family Foundation provided seed money in 1999 for Boots for Kids to operate as a nonprofit.

The thriving 501c3 today covers the Grand Traverse area, from Mancelona to Mesick, from Benzie to Buckley,
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and all points between. It’s in 24 area schools, and each year gives out between 700 850 pairs of boots, Schmuckal said.

“We keep saying that one year we’re going to hit 900 we’re not striving to meet those numbers but that’s how it is,” Schmuckal said.

Volunteers, including Golden and Schmuckal, rally groups to pack the boot boxes for delivery to schools and other service organizations. Boxes include brand name boots sized to fit, all weather socks, hats, gloves and dental supplies.

Joan Rowland helped pack boots this year with members of the Traverse City Elks Lodge 323 and Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools’ football team. She has written grants on behalf of the Elks’ to contribute to Boots for Kids for several years, she said.

“It just makes a lasting impact,” she said. “These boots last through several children in a family, or get passed on to other children who need them. You really get a good bang for your buck.”

It takes about $50,000 a year to fund the effort, which comes from donors and grants, Schmuckal said.

It’s work that’s good for the sole, all the way around, Schmuckal said. Besides warm feet, the new kicks seem to give the kids an internal boost, he said.

“It seems to help the kids’ self esteem,” Schmuckal said.

It also helps kids enjoy the simple pleasures of winter play, as kids without weather gear don’t get to go outside at recess, Golden said.

“They say, ‘Thank you, now we can go play outside,'” Golden said. “You don’t want these kids singled out the other kids notice and getting good quality everything is really important. It’s something we wish we didn’t have to do, but it’s needed. It’s because of the generosity of organizations, which donate their time and money,
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that make it successful.”