Not one to watch TV, go to movies or read many books, Jim Frank was looking to volunteer for a local high school soccer program eight years ago. When Withrow High School came calling, he accepted the challenge knowing that he would be dealing with economically disadvantaged students.
The St. Xavier grad who runs an architectural landscape design company, is involved in commercial real estate and is part of the horticultural staff of Spring Grove Cemetery, had more seeds to plant.
When Frank arrived at Withrow from his Mount Lookout residence, he quickly found out that then-coach Tyler Barrott was dealing with a roster of unique players. Most were foreign-born who fled to the United States from nations surrounded by war, violence or natural disasters.
In his first year, only one of Barrott's players was born in America. Most were part of the English Language Learners program at Cincinnati Public Schools. The players were part of families who arrived in the U.S. with next to nothing and the players had many obstacles including transportation and equipment.
Grade placement, transferring of credits and sometimes even an accurate certification of birth were other issues.
Then, there were the shoes.
Most didn't have the appropriate footwear to play. Barrott had worked with Soccer Village, which put a bin out in some of its stores to accept used, donated cleats. But, with 40 players on the roster, they could only come up with 23 pairs.
Frank recalls the team adjusting substitution strategies based on similar shoe sizes. Some teams would become aggravated when a player had to exit, then take off his shoes so his sub could have the cleats.
"You could see the disdain on the other teams' faces," Frank said. "They'd have to take their shin guards off, it just took so long."
An initial fundraising effort gave the team equipment, uniforms and personal gear that included previously worn shoes. Withrow thought it had solved the substitution issue, but then another problem evolved.
Frank discovered that players wearing shoes shaped for another's foot led to eventual issues in the lower extremities.
As it turns out, it starts with the shoes. A player likely would be better conditioned and not unnecessarily fatigued wearing their own personal new cleats.
"Used shoes in someone else's gait puts too much stress on them," Frank said.
The realization spurred Frank on to form It Starts With The Shoes, Inc. with his wife Mary to help with not only the needs of Withrow but possibly other area schools with similar predicaments.
It Starts with the Shoes, Inc. was founded in 2015, and is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Frank has established a wish list for others to donate to Withrow and other schools, such as Western Hills, that have also received shoes from the program.
Moeller chips in with an assist
Helping with donations this season has been Moeller, one of the top programs in the area. Crystal Morrison has a son on the Crusaders squad and is in charge of the team's culture leadership group that looks for community projects.
"Community service and giving back is a key component of who we are as a school," Morrison said. "I sent out a note to the parents and said, 'Here's our opportunity.' It's a privilege to get a pair of Nike shoes when yours are starting to get a little bit worn. A lot of kids don't have that opportunity."
Moeller will not only support the program this year but also in the coming years.
"Like they say, it starts with the shoes," Morrison said. "You've got to have a good platform."
Moeller coach Mike Welker has partnered or plans to partner with other organizations including Pink Ribbon Girls, the FC Cincinnati Foundation, and Habitat for Humanity in addition to It Starts With The Shoes.
"It's not just all about soccer," Welker said. "Any kid deserves as equal of a playing field as possible. This should be about raising awareness for organizations like this that are trying to raise awareness in the soccer community. Hopefully, there's 30 other schools or 50 other schools that help in an area like this. It's not just a Moeller thing. It's about helping our neighbors and people in need."
Walk a mile in Withrow's shoes
Like past teams at Withrow, these Tigers face obstacles a traditional high school athlete rarely sees. Up between 5 and 6 a.m. to catch a Metro bus (usually with a connection) to get to Withrow, they have a full day of classes before practice may begin after 3 p.m. If it's a game day, it's a bus ride to an opponent's venue to make a 5 p.m. junior varsity game, followed by a 7 p.m. varsity start.
Post-game, the bus returns to Withrow. If they don't make the 9:50 Metro stop, then it's a 10:40 bus to Government Square in downtown Cincinnati. From there, a connection may get them closer to home or there may be a substantial walk to get to bed by midnight, then start the cycle over again.
"Transportation is the biggest hurdle for all these kids," Frank said.
Information from a recent GoFundMe request described the Withrow team as being from 15 countries that were involved in seven civil wars, three genocides and full of poverty and famine. The players often are from crime-ridden neighborhoods. Over the past five years, median family income from players at schools making the Ohio state semifinals was $87,000, while median family income of a student attending Withrow was $23,000, according to a previous GoFundMe effort Frank posted in the description of the team and its issues.
'You could just see their faces light up'
On shoe distribution day Sept. 15 at Withrow, Frank described the arrival of the boxes as Christmas Day. The shoes are generally entry-level models running $45 to $75.
"They didn't care (about price)," Frank said. "They just saw how cool the design was. You could just see their faces light up like 'Wow, I got some new shoes!' That part is obviously thrilling for me."
Other schools have benefited from cleats distributed by It Starts With The Shoes including Western Hills, Aiken, Colerain, Dayton Ponitz and Holmes and Boone County in Kentucky.
Schools and groups that have contributed in past seasons include Kings, Anderson, Loveland, West Clermont, Walnut Hills, Little Miami, Beechmont Soccer Club, Cincinnati United, Kings Hammer, FC Cincinnati, Ohio Valley Premier League and Die Innenstadt according to equipment coordinator Dan Frank, Jim's brother.
Watchful eye of the Tiger
Jim Frank has been through three coaches (currently Brandon Wesley), three principals and eight athletic directors at Withrow but still looks forward to his time on the field with players needing an outlet. In the offseason, he coordinates club games during the week and an indoor futsal league featuring some of the Withrow teachers.
Withrow is no longer in the Eastern Cincinnati Conference but had some memorable seasons there winning five games overall in 2014 and six each in 2018 and 2019. Withrow has struggled since returning to the Cincinnati Metro Athletic Conference, but some of the ECC teams have kept them on the schedule like West Clermont, Walnut Hills and Winton Woods.
"We're getting families that get dropped off and don't know anything about where they're going to send their kids to school," Frank said. "They work their way through the CPS system, then we hurry to get their physicals. It takes time to get them all up to speed, forget the fact they haven't learned our system or anything."
In previous years, Withrow had a girls program but numbers have ended that for the time being. Three girls practice with the boys with one good enough to play JV and varsity games.
Withrow's next scheduled game is at Winton Woods Sept. 20, while they next appear at their Hyde Park campus stadium Sept. 23 against Trotwood-Madison.
Donations are also needed for post-game food such as bananas, oranges and power bars, but it all starts with the shoes.