It began with a chance dinner-party conversation in early 1992: Elodie McGuirk was surprised to hear a woman talk about how her beloved job as an elementary school secretary also made her sad. “She said that a little boy came into her office crying that his feet hurt,” says McGuirk. He had outgrown his shoes, the woman explained, so his impoverished parents “turned his toes under, laced up the shoes and sent him to school.” McGuirk, heartbroken, asked why school officials didn’t just go buy him shoes that fit. “She said that they have hundreds of kids just like him,” McGuirk recalls, “and they wouldn’t know where to start.”

McGuirk decided to make that start herself. She asked her new friend to introduce her to the principal at the school and persuaded her to measure the feet of 35 needy students. Then McGuirk posted each child’s shoe size on a bulletin board at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., where she worked in the financial-aid department. Two days later she had 35 pairs of brand-new sneakers, courtesy of faculty, staff and students. That good deed quickly grew into the nonprofit Shoes That Fit (shoesthatfit.org), which has since donated 2 million pairs of new shoes to needy students at more than 2,300 schools in 45 states.

For low-income families choosing between rent and food, shoes don’t always make the cut. “Shoes are something so simple that can create a big difference in a child’s life,” says McGuirk, 70, who now serves as an adviser for the organization and is a financial donor. “New shoes make kids feel like they matter,” she adds. “It’s powerful.” – Caitlin Keating