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North Shore student brings shoes to those in need, near and far

When 7-year-old Ellie Johnson walked into the Miller Hill Mall with $50 in cash from her recent birthday party, the Two Harbors girl wasn't looking to buy a gift for herself.

Ellie Johnson
Ellie Johnson, 7, of Two Harbors, purchases 22 pairs of shoes during a trip to Payless ShoeSource at the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth on Monday. Her mother, Julie Racchi, looks on while Katie Larson, an assistant manager, works the register. Ellie has been raising funds to buy shoes for her school, women's shelters and an orphanage in Kenya. (Photo by Tom Olsen)

When 7-year-old Ellie Johnson walked into the Miller Hill Mall with $50 in cash from her recent birthday party, the Two Harbors girl wasn't looking to buy a gift for herself.

Instead, she headed to Payless ShoeSource and purchased six pairs of shoes to donate to her school, local women's shelters and an orphanage in Kenya.

But that wasn't all. With other donations, from friends, family and strangers, Ellie had collected about 80 pairs of shoes by early this week, and she expects to be making several more trips to Payless for more as donations continue to roll in.

"She has always had the biggest heart," said her mother, Julie Racchi. "She's always looking for ways to help others."

The project has come to be known simply as "Ellie's Shoe Box."

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Ellie's inspiration for the drive was simple enough: She got the idea while watching an episode of the Disney Channel show "The Time I ...," a series that features kids sharing real-life inspirational experiences.

"I saw on TV this girl who wanted to collect shoes for her birthday and she got over 200 pairs to donate," Ellie said. "I thought, 'Why don't I do that, too?'"

Ellie turned 7 on April 11 and asked her friends and family to bring shoes to her birthday party instead of traditional gifts.

She brought her birthday money into Payless on Saturday, April 20, to buy additional shoes with her birthday money.

Katie Larson, an assistant manager, was working that day and said she was inspired after hearing the story. After Ellie and her mother left, Larson tracked them down in the mall to find out how she could help.

"When she left, I cried a little," she said. "I was so touched. Being right after the Boston Marathon and Watertown shootout, it restored my faith in humanity to know that there are kids like Ellie out there."

Larson and a co-worker later purchased 14 pairs of shoes to donate to Ellie's drive, and a sign now sits at the counter at Payless with information on how to contribute.

"I said, 'We've got to help and get other people knowing about this,'" Larson said. "She's such an inspiration to us all."

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Racchi set up an email address and a Facebook page to help coordinate donations. While she gets some help from her mother, Ellie does most of the work herself, keeping an inventory of the shoes, delivering them to the school and shelters, and making phone calls to ask for contributions.

Ellie, who attends North Shore Community School in rural Duluth, used some of her cash donations to purchase shoes for gym classes at her school. She collected shoe size information for students who didn't have gym shoes, making sure that each of her classmates had a pair of shoes that fit.

She has also paired with a teacher at the school who volunteers in Kenya about once a year. Ellie said she plans to give the teacher as many pairs of flip flops and light shoes that will fit into a suitcase for the next trip, so the shoes can be given to orphans in the country's impoverished areas.

Ellie plans to donate the rest of the shoes to local women's shelters. She has already dropped some off at the Damiano Center in Duluth.

"People like them," Ellie said. "They are happy to get new shoes."

Racchi said she wasn't too surprised by her daughter's generosity (she always plays a big role in school fundraisers and last summer went door-to-door to raise "quarters for cleanup" in the wake of the June flood), but the project has grown more quickly than she would have imagined.

Ellie and her mother say they are unsure of what's next for the Ellie's Shoe Box project. It could turn into an annual spring drive, or they could just seek contributions when the shelters are in need. If it grows big enough, they could seek a nonprofit designation, Racchi said.

But for now, Ellie just wants to keep the drive going as long as someone is in need.

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"I hope she always keeps that heart that wants to help people," Racchi said.

To donate

If you are interested in donating cash or a pair of new or gently used shoes to Ellie's Shoe Box, contact elliesshoebox@hotmail.com or visit the Ellie's Shoe Box Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ElliesShoeBox

Related Topics: LAKE COUNTYTWO HARBORS
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