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Teen's 'Gotta Have Sole' shoe charity kick-starts hope for 31,000 homeless kids

Inspired in part by his grandfather’s humble upbringing, 17-year-old Nicholas Lowinger has spent the last five years helping underprivileged kids improve their lives from the ground up.

His mother, Lori, shared the story of Nicholas and his shoe-related charity, Gotta Have Sole, in a letter to TODAY’s Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb featured on Thursday's "Everyone Has a Story" segment.

Lori recalled that when Nicholas was young, her father — a World War II veteran and the youngest of five children — told him he grew up poor and had to wear hand-me-down clothes and ill-fitting shoes.

“[My father’s] shoes were stuffed with tissue, and cardboard was inserted to cover holes in the soles so his feet would stay dry,” Lori wrote. “Nicholas was 5, listening to my father with eyes wide open, deeply troubled by how he lived as a boy. He would tell me that his heart ached and [he] wished he could have given my father new shoes.”

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Nicholas Lowinger shows shoes donated to his charity, Gotta Have Sole.

Around that time, Lori and Nicholas were volunteering at a Rhode Island homeless shelter. “Children told him they missed school and sports because they shared shoes with a sibling, or how they were bullied because of their shoes,” Lori wrote. “Determined to do something … he scurried home, packed up shoes he had outgrown, and returned to the shelter to donate them.”

As Nicholas writes on the Gotta Have Sole website, “I was devastated by this and wanted to help the children however I could. I started donating my gently used clothing and footwear but often didn’t have the correct sizes for the children. I knew that the only shoes that would fit them best would be new, correctly sized ones, and hoped someday I would be able to donate these.”

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This idea turned into Gotta Have Sole, the nonprofit Nicholas helped launch in 2010, when he was 12 years old. He focused on kids in Rhode Island homeless shelters.

In the first year, about 400 homeless children received new shoes, and five years after Nicholas founded the charity, it has mobilized more than 3,000 volunteers and accommodated over 31,000 homeless children in 38 states. By the time Nicholas graduates high school in 2016, Gotta Have Sole hopes to expand its reach to all 50 states.

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“It has always been my hope that the children will feel more confident about themselves because they have new shoes to call their own,” Nicholas writes on his website, “and that they will have the same opportunities afforded to them as their peers.”

TODAY honored Nicholas for his selflessness Thursday when he and his parents appeared on "Everyone Has a Story." Singer Sal Cacciato (whom viewers might remember from ‘TODAY! The Musical') performed “New Shoes,” an original song co-written by TODAY's Kathie Lee Gifford just for the occasion. And Wilson Sporting Goods showered Nicholas with gifts and a donation of 100 pairs of sneakers to Gotta Have Sole.

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To say Lori is proud is an understatement. “I am a better person because of him,” she wrote of her son. “He has shown me that determination, passion and selfless acts of kindness make a difference in the lives of others and enrich your life.”

Follow TODAY.com writer Chris Serico on Twitter.

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