The death of Pat Welch's son, Steven, in 2001 was completely unexpected and difficult to face, but the good that has come from a charity created in his name is making the pain a little more bearable.
Steven Welch was a Northern Arizona University graduate and just 33 at the time of his death. He had been supporting himself at NAU by delivering pizzas for Domino's by night, while he saved up to start his own engineering company.
On July 4, 2001, he was making his last pizza delivery of the night in Ahwatukee Foothills, near Equestrian Trail and the Warner-Elliot Loop, when his car was struck by a Mitsubishi driven by Scott Sucharew.
Police say Sucharew was drunk at the time of the crash and had been racing over 70 mph with then-Desert Vista High School junior Weston Doyle, who lost control of his Mustang and slammed into a wall.
At the end of their trials Doyle received two years probation and Sucharew was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the second-degree murder of Welch. He will be released next year.
As Steven's mother, Pat, and grandmother, Evelyn Hagar, went through Steven's things after his death they realized he had been saving his money carefully. He left only two minor monthly bills behind.
"I took his tax money, and he had some savings, and we decided we had to do something with it," Pat said.
She looked around for a good cause she could dedicate the money to in her son's name. At the time, she was a schoolteacher and was aware of children at her school who needed new shoes, so she created Tennies From Heaven.
The 501 c3 nonprofit works directly with school liaisons and school nurses to identify kids who truly need new shoes. They visit a different school each month in the Phoenix area and distribute up to 100 pairs of shoes.
"It's fun," Pat said. "At the end of the day I feel so fulfilled. The kids say thank you, but I always want to say, ‘No, thank you,' because it's so uplifting. We're just a simple little charity."
Tennies from Heaven relies solely on monetary donations from the community and the occasional shoe or sock drive, like one hosted annually at The BAR Fitness in Ahwatukee.
They have no corporate sponsorship or backing, yet each time the account has gotten low, someone has stepped in to help the charity keep going.
A law in recent years has made it possible for the organization to offer a dollar-for-dollar tax credit on an itemized income tax return, which has made it easier for some to donate.
This year has been difficult for Pat to adjust as her mother and partner in the charity, Evelyn, passed away in July. Friends have offered to volunteer more, and so Tennies From Heaven moves forward. Pat says in her experience, the need never goes away.
"Every once in a while you think about the kids that want the iPhones and all these material things, and they're in third or fourth grade, and then you see these kids," she said. "They're so happy with the shoes. I had one little boy that came in and he said, ‘Well, I like my shoes, but my friend would like those shoes.' Another mom said she didn't want her child to get shoes. She said to give them to someone more in need. After all these years you go to one school and see the poverty and then you go to another and it's even worse. There is always a need for the shoes."
Over the years Pat estimates they've helped more than 5,000 kids get new shoes. Every once in a while when she sees a blue-eyed child, like her son, put on a fresh pair of shoes, she sees Steven looking back.
"He'd be so happy," Pat said. "I think he'd just be elated with the amount of people who have stepped up to help, and the amount of kids who have benefitted from it."
To volunteer or donate to Tennies From Heaven, contact Pat by email at email@example.com.
Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 50634, Phoenix, Ariz., 85076.
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7914 or firstname.lastname@example.org