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Helping the homeless -- one 'step' at a time

By Jason Evans, CNN
January 24, 2014 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • McClain Hermes, 13, is legally blind but still collects thousands of shoes for less fortunate.
  • McClain thought footwear would be better off donated than recycled
  • Shoes for the Souls began in 2009 and has collected around 10,000 pairs
  • Her family says she is selfless and very rarely dwells on her handicap

(CNN) -- For 13-year-old McClain Hermes, the inspiration to impact her world began in 2009, after her father showed her a magazine article about a shoe recycling program. "We decided (that instead of) recycling them, we would collect them and give them to people that needed them," she says.

And with that, Shoes for the Souls was born and delivered 365 pairs of shoes that first year.

In the five years since, the Georgia teen and her father, Matt Hermes, have collected about 10,000 pairs of shoes for an Atlanta homeless shelter.

But what's especially impressive about this middle school student is she does this despite the daily struggles life brings her. About the time she began collecting shoes, she developed vision problems that ended up with one of her retinas detached and her vision extremely limited in the other. She's now legally blind, and doctors say she will be completely without sight in the next two to five years. Outside the comfort of her home, she oftentimes will need to use a cane.

Her family has taken several vacations to scenic destinations such as the Grand Canyon, wanting McClain to be able to experience breathtaking views while she still has a little vision left.

But her disability hasn't stopped her from becoming a young dynamo.

Besides Shoes for the Souls, McClain is a competitive swimmer with dreams of making the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She wears special goggles and a special cane is used by another person so she knows when she's approaching the wall.

Her shoe initiative has made her an inspiration for those much older as well.

An employee off McClain's father, Ingle Chadwick-Ard, first came in contact with the Hermes family after one of her daughters was in the same Sunday school class as McClain. She doesn't mince words about her potential, saying this with a hearty laugh: "She's going to take over the world, that kid."

But she still enjoys having fun and has found ways to work in some hijinks with her father on their project.

"The second year, my dad made an agreement with me that if we collected 1,000 pairs of shoes, which he thought was completely out of the ballpark, that I could shave his head, so 1,598 shoes later, he had a shaved head!"

But deep down, it's a very serious way to help those in crisis. And the residents at the Atlanta Mission, where McClain donates the shoes, are extremely grateful for what she does.

Dennis Williams ended up at the shelter after struggling with substance abuse. Everything he wears was donated.

"Her example is an awesome example of being selfless," he says.

McClain enjoys the appreciation she receives from the shelter residents: "The men, a lot of them come up and give me hugs and say thank you after we're done."

Her childhood has been different from than most of her peers, but she refuses to let it be an excuse. She challenges others to go out and be of service to others.

"If you have a dream and you think it's unrealistic, just keep on doing it because you'll get there."

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