NORMAL — The new basketball team at Oakdale Elementary left school on Friday with 14 new pairs of shoes to carry on the legacy of an Illinois State University coach who died four years ago.
When 36-year-old Torrey Ward, an associate basketball coach at ISU, died in the plane crash that claimed seven lives just outside Bloomington, his mother Janice Ward was left wondering what to do with all of his shoes.
“He’d loved shoes forever,” Ward said. “So early on, I was like ... 'What am I going to do with all these shoes? How can I use them to help somebody else?’”
Instead of finding a home for used shoes, Ward found Shoes That Fit, an organization that addresses poverty by giving kids new athletic shoes.
“It’s real important that the kids have shoes of their own that they’re proud of,” Ward said, and the looks on the Oakdale Panthers’ faces as they open their shoe boxes reflected that.
“These are nice,” said 11-year-old Lamarion, grinning at his new kicks.
Ward’s Shoes That Fit campaign “TeamTWard3" brought in donations from across the country.
Because of the support she and her family received from the Twin Cities and ISU after her son died, Ward said she wanted to use those donations to give back here as well as in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala.
“When this God awful thing happened, the school community and the community of people really, really embraced our family and really, really supported us,” she said. “In some sort of way, (they) almost made us, Torrey’s family, feel like we’re a part of the community, too."
The TeamTWard3 raised about $7,000 and collected 30 pairs of donated shoes, sending 280 pairs of shoes to Oakdale Elementary in Normal and Robinson Elementary in Birmingham.
After the initial distribution at the schools, and with some funds left over, Ward reached out to Oakdale again to see how else her campaign could help. The school suggested using the funds to help the new Panthers team get started on the right foot in their first season.
For some members of the Oakdale team, which is comprised of fourth and fifth graders, these are their first pair of shoes meant solely for basketball.
“The kids haven’t seen them, I haven’t see them, so it’s going to be kind of a surprise for everybody,” said Brandon Holtz, a former ISU player who coaches the team.
The Oakdale players didn’t get to pick out their own pairs or even the brand of shoe, but they all seemed satisfied with their gifts.
“I love them,” Lamarion said. “Under Armor shoes have like super grip on the bottom.”
Additional funds raised at Holtz’ church and from the Promise Council paid for new uniforms and entrance fees for the team’s first tournament.
“We’re very happy obviously with how much they’ve helped us,” Holtz said.
For Ward, giving back to this community and making an impact in Torrey’s honor was a win-win.