Kevin Rivera, an employee of Fleet Feet Sports in West Hartford, now voluntarily manages the program that he believes gave him the tools for a successful life.
By Ronni Newton
Kevin Rivera received a brand new pair of running shoes from Fleet Feet seven years ago when he was a middle school student at Capital Prepatory School in Hartford, and he’s now paying it forward in the hopes that other teens will use running shoes as a means of escaping poverty and improving their lives.
Rivera has just started his sophomore year at Central Connecticut State University, where he is a scholarship cross country and track athlete. He is the first in his family to attend college.
When Rivera was in 7th grade he joined Capital Prep’s running program with some friends. “The first week, Stephanie [Blozy, the owner of Fleet Feet Sports in West Hartford] comes to Bushnell Park with a new pair of shoes,” Rivera said. He was thrilled with the shoes, which came from Fleet Feet’s basement “shoe library,” and came to love running which he found to be a life-changing experience in several ways.
“Those shoes provided us with inspiration and courage – courage to follow a different path than many of our friends who were joining gangs that abused alcohol and drugs and embraced violence. Instead, we joined a gang of runners – embracing sweat and hard work. My running shoes became a prized possession. They represented my ticket out of the cycle of poverty that surrounded me,” Rivera wrote in a speech he read when he recently accepted a $3,000 grant that he had applied to and received from Asics to supplement the “shoe library” at Fleet Feet.
Last Wednesday Rivera went to Elizabeth Park, and met approximately 50 students from Hartford Public, Capital Prep, and Classical Magnet. He gave them each a pair of shoes from the library. “I had them fill out a ‘shoe library’ card. I want to make sure if we are giving out shoes it’s for a purpose,” Rivera said.
The comments he heard echoed some of the thoughts he had when he received that first pair of new shoes: “This is the first pair of new shoes I’ve gotten in a long time.” “I want to do my personal best and these shoes will work as a vehicle.” Others said they were the nicest shoes they had ever owned.
“One of the best parts was just seeing the looks on kids’ faces. I remember when I got my first pair,” Rivera said.
When he met the students at Elizabeth Park last week, Rivera read the speech he had written about his first pair of Fleet Feet shoes and how they ultimately helped him to go to college. “The kids gave him a huge round of applause,” Blozy said.
Rivera said that his shoes from the shoe library took him places both literally and figuratively. “Instead of looking for trouble after school, we looked for great places to run. Instead of staying up late and partying on Friday night, we went to bed early so we would be well-rested for our race Saturday morning. Instead of blowing off school, we diligently did our homework so we could remain eligible for the team. Our team became family and we looked after each other,” Rivera wrote in his speech accepting the Asics grant.
Other than the new shoes obtained from Asics, many of the shoes in Fleet Feet’s shoe library are “gently” worn – usually shoes that are returned because a customer purchases them and doesn’t like them for some reason. The shoes can’t be sold as new because they have been worn outside.
Rivera’s helped Capital Prep win the CIAC Class S cross country championships in 2013 – the first time a Hartford school had won in more than five decades. “Distance running is not the norm in Hartford. There’s not a lot of access to trails. People don’t have access to proper running footwear,” said Rivera. Some team members show up the first time wearing Jordans [basketball shoes] which Rivera said can lead to injury.
Rivera’s former Capital Prep coach, who was the liaison with Fleet Feet, recently left to work in Bridgeport. “I approached Stephanie, and said I would do it myself. I want to give back to the community, to pay it forward,” said Rivera, who also began working at Fleet Feet in February.
Rivera is studying political science at CCSU, and is looking for other ways to give back to the community. He works with Peace Builders in Hartford and also has been training kids to do triathlons.
The shoe library is his mission right now, and he’s thankful to Fleet Feet for giving him the opportunity to make a real difference. “The fact that a small business in West Hartford allows me to use their resources to give back to the community says a lot about the owners,” Rivera said.
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