Oxted resident CJ Bowry received an OBE in the King’s New Year’s Honours List for her work with her charity Sal’s Shoes, which takes good quality preloved shoes and redestributes them around the world.
When her son Sal, now 13, was small, CJ wanted to do something positive with his outgrown, but not outworn, shoes.
“In many countries, not having shoes can be a barrier to accessing education, so I wanted Sal’s old ones to help families living in poverty. The problem was, no charity could tell me specifically where any shoes I gave them would go, and I wanted to know for certain that a child in need had received them.”
CJ, who grew up in sub-Saharan Africa, asked a friend working on a children’s hospital ward in Zambia, if Sal’s shoes would be of use there. When she said they would, CJ posted them to her. In return, her friend sent pictures of the children wearing them.
“Seeing those made me want to do more,” says CJ. “So I posted the images on social media, and received 50 messages from friends wanting to donate shoes too! I sent those pairs to another place in Zambia, then posted the photos I got back from there as well, tagging in all my friends, who shared them with their networks. That week, I had 150 messages from strangers, and that marked the beginning of Sal’s Shoes.
Ten years later, we’ve found new feet for more than five million pairs, in 61 countries. And I, and my team of volunteers who pack and send them out from our Edenbridge storage unit, know exactly where every single pair has gone.”
Sal’s Shoes also supports families in the UK, where demand has risen sharply in the last few years.
“In the last 12 months we’ve sent out more than 150,000 pairs of shoes to people who can’t afford them, including more than 30,000 pairs of school shoes. It’s horrifying.”
Alongside Sal’s Shoes sits Clemie’s Clothes, which CJ began when her four-year old daughter Clemie, now 10, asked if she could send her outgrown Cinderella dress to a girl she had befriended on a Sal’s Shoe’s trip to Johannesburg.
“It got me thinking that the children we support with shoes could also benefit from the magic of make believe. So, we also occasionally send out parcels of dressing up costumes with Sal’s Shoes deliveries. And we get delightful photos of kids in Spiderman outfits and princess dresses!”
In October 2023, CJ received the news that she was being given an OBE for services to young people, education and the environment; something she had to keep to herself until the King’s Honours List was formally announced at the end of December. She will collect her award sometime this year.
“I’ve always thought acknowledgements for charity sector work feels awkward. We’re only able to achieve something because of the less fortunate position of others: in our case in particular, that’s children. However, this honour is recognition of the hard work behind the scenes and all that our team has accomplished so far.
Anything I’ve achieved has been because of the all-encompassing support from everyone around me. Sal’s Shoes cannot do what it does without the generosity and efforts of its volunteers and donors, and I never take that for granted.”
See salsshoes.com for more information on shoe donation. To donate money, visit paypal.me/salsshoes or salsshoes.enthuse.com.