These days, Jeb List and Danielle Dornbusch are doing a lot of sole searching.
The University of South Dakota students are spearheading "Share Your Sole." The promotion, conducted through the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), collects shoes for the Cheyenne River reservation in north-central South Dakota.
The reservation, home to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, suffers from some of the nation's worst poverty. Recent blizzards have worsened the situation by destroying infrastructure, in turn creating power outages and shortages of water, food and fuel.
List, a Yankton native, said he was shocked when he learned that shoes were in short supply on the reservation.
"I have a friend who went to the Cheyenne River reservation, then came back and told me where the kids weren't having shoes. I thought (the shoe project) was something I could do for them," List said.
"Unfortunately, you now have the storms. I talked to a girl from the Cheyenne River reservation who goes to USD, and she said there are still some (areas) without power and heat. I can't imagine what it's been like, especially with how cold it's been."
List said he has remained in contact with the Cheyenne River Youth Project about their needs. "We are definitely speeding things up and trying to get shoes out there quicker," he said.
The project has collected about 200 pairs of shoes in just a week. The next major push for the shoe collection will come during Thursday night's basketball doubleheader against Utah Valley at the DakotaDome. Boxes will be set up for receiving shoe donations, and half-time activities will focus on the project.
The USD shoe project received a huge — and unexpected — boost last week. During his nightly "Countdown" program, MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann sharply criticized the federal government for not doing enough for the Cheyenne River reservation. He then shone a spotlight on the USD shoe project as a private relief effort.
Dornbusch said she was stunned at the national exposure. She still doesn't know how Olbermann learned about "Share Your Sole."
"At first, I thought, could this be us?" she said of the MSNBC segment. "Then, I thought, 'Wow! I can't believe it happened!' The excitement is overwhelming, and it's such a proud feeling. I think students will want even more to be part of something that has received national attention."
Any kind of shoes will be accepted, List said. Collection points include the DakotaDome, Muenster University Center, the Al Neuharth Media Center and the Belbas Center. The boxes are colored and covered with flyers promoting "Share Your Sole."
"We have gotten all kinds of shoes. We are actually storing the shoes in my basement in Vermillion," List said. "I go through the boxes and decide whether to keep a pair of shoes. If there are a lot of holes, I throw them away. If I keep them, I clean them up and put some disinfectant on them."
As of Tuesday, several boxes were filled to the top with shoes, Dornbusch said. In addition, shoes and clothing were received from New York and Virginia. Money donations and other clothing and socks have also arrived.
In an effort to collect more shoes, Dornbusch spoke to Vermillion elementary schools. The Jolley School fifth graders and the entire St. Agnes School are taking part in the collection, she said.
"They are fired up about it. You could see their smiling faces and the excitement going through their minds," she said. "We will be getting at least 100 pairs from the elementary schools."
Dornbusch would like to collect 500 pairs of shoes. No end date has been set for collections, but the distribution would likely come in late February or early March, she said.
"My goal is to get a truckful of shoes. That shouldn't be a problem at all," she said.
The "Countdown" mention has benefited more than the USD shoe effort. The national response has also surprised Bob Sutton, executive director of the South Dakota Community Foundation (SDCF).
"(Olbermann) mentions online giving through the Web site we set up for this purpose. The result of his comments has been incredible," Sutton said.
"We had this Web site going for two weeks and had raised approximately $8,000. Through generous matches from the Bush Foundation and the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, the first $35,000 raised was matched dollar for dollar. Our goal was $35,000 by the end of February.
"Since the MSNBC airing, the fund has grown to over $270,000 without the matching funds, bringing the total to over $300,000. In addition, there have been many, many inquiries about sending non-cash gifts, such as shoes and coats."
The Cheyenne River project marks SDCF's first attempt at online giving, Sutton said.
"We have nothing to compare it to, but know the national attention really made a difference," he said. "The real beneficiaries here are Chairman (Joseph) Brings Plenty, the tribal council and all the people of the Cheyenne River."
The online funds will not arrive until mid-March, Sutton said. At that time, organizers hope to present the donations during a ceremony on the reservation, he said.
"We have not discussed a formal presentation to date, but we would certainly think including USD and others in a large event makes good sense," he said.
On a somber note, Olbermann's commentary will focus attention on long-standing reservation problems that have suddenly become much worse, Dornbusch said.
"Ultimately, it will raise national awareness. This is a wake-up call," she said.
The numbers tell the story, List said. He pointed to three major statistics from the 2000 U.S. Census:
• The Cheyenne River reservation is located in Ziebach County, which is ranked as the fourth poorest county in the nation;
• More than 45 percent of the total population of the Cheyenne River reservation is under age 18;
• 61 percent of the youth under 18 in Ziebach County and 39 percent in Dewey County are living below the poverty line.
The reservation residents are in desperate need of assistance, said Julie Garreau, executive director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project. About 15,000 people live on the sprawling reservation, which includes 17 communities and covers 3 million acres, she said.
Garreau expressed appreciation for the USD students' shoe collection. She remains in contact with List, Dornbusch and Keri Fischer, a USD student and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member.
"It's a really great thing for them to do. It's something they started, something they initiated," Garreau said. "We always have a need for clothing and shoes. We get a lot of generous donations, but there is always a need for that. We need good winter coats and boots of all sizes."
The project has been rewarding for the college students, said David Herbster, the USD associate director of athletics who helped organize the shoe collection.
"We are very proud of our student-athletes for their effort and enthusiasm in picking this up as a project," he said. "The attention now surrounding it will only shine additional exposure to them reaching their goal. In the end, it is about the people we are trying to reach and help in our own state."
The true impact of the "Countdown" exposure will be realized this week, Herbster said. Organizers are hoping USD students and staff bring shoes from home upon returning from the President's Day weekend.
"I think we will really be able to tell the response when we get to the game this upcoming Thursday where we are asking everybody to bring shoes. We already had people bringing shoes last week," Herbster said. "It is a good feeling when you can be a part of something special to help others, and our athletes are finding that out."
List and Dornbusch want to load up the shoes and deliver them on the Cheyenne River reservation. They believe the greatest satisfaction will come in seeing the faces of the people who are helped by the project.
"We are always helping internationally, but here are people in our own country who need help. Honestly, until last year, I had no idea it was that bad out there (on the reservation)," List said.
"It's definitely a great feeling to help someone much less fortunate than me."