In early January, Pasos for Oak Cliff founders Jesse Acosta and Alejandra Zendejas got an out-of-the-blue email from Netflix. The streaming giant was looking for real-life sneakerhead couples to help promote its Jonah Hill- and Lauren London-led romcom, You People. Acosta and Zendejas, who founded the nonprofit Pasos to help kids gain confidence by giving them sneakers, were the perfect pair.
After a few rounds of interviews, Netflix flew the couple to New York. They were gifted with shoelace-shaped gold rings crafted by sneaker designer Sean Wotherspoon and jeweler Greg Yuna. The rings are “very unique—not to be corny or anything—with our love,” Acosta says.
But when the couple first got the email, they were shocked. “It could have been a scam,” Acosta says. “[We] could have maybe been kidnapped. I don’t know.”
Zendejas and Acosta’s disbelief was similar to the reaction of the kids to whom they gift sneakers. In less than three years, they’ve handed out more 2,100 pairs of sneakers to children across Oak Cliff and the state of Texas. Each student is nominated by their school. Most of the kids are used to old hand-me-downs. “A lot of them, I feel like,” says Acosta, “they’re expecting a hidden camera to come out, and be like, ‘sike, we’re taking these back.’” But the shoes are theirs to keep.
Acosta, who teaches at Kimball High School, says he wanted to launch Pasos after noticing how shoes could impact his students’ confidence and attendance in the classroom. He also started it because of his own experience growing up in the area. He was bullied as a child for not having a nice pair of shoes. (He once “learned the hard way” that the supposed Jordans he once wore were fake). Oak Cliff has a big sneaker culture, he says, and shoes are seen as a status symbol.
“It doesn’t mean you’re rich,” he says, but it will give you respect amongst your peers.
During the pandemic, Acosta and Zendejas organized a shoe drive for Oak Cliff kids. The community was “unbelievably supportive” and kept asking when they would host more drives. Pasos for Oak Cliff now hosts two big drives before school starts in the fall and before the holidays. They give out around 500 pairs at those alone. They also organize multiple smaller drives throughout the year.
“It was supposed to be a one-time thing,” Acosta says, “and here we are, almost three years later, and we’re still running it.”
Pasos for Oak Cliff, which is run by a volunteer staff of mostly teachers, has grown to be more than just a shoe drive. Since it launched in August 2020, the organization has given out more than $20,000 in scholarships to Oak Cliff-area seniors. They also check in on those students throughout the semester. A lot of kids get scholarships, Acosta says, “but there is no follow-up support and so they are more likely to drop out.” They want to make sure these students stay in school and graduate.
Last June, they launched Pasos All Stars, a monthlong summer intervention program to teach struggling ninth graders math and literacy through the context of sneakers.
“That’s my favorite one right now,” Acosta says of the program. During All Stars, the students answered shoe-related math problems then were paired with tutors to read and learn more about sneaker history and production. They each got to custom-design a pair of Nike Air Force 1s.
Acosta was the “sneaker teacher.” He taught the kids how to design the shoes and about various Nike collaborations with celebrities. He encouraged them to think about their own family histories and values and to “tell stories with shoes.” The kids wrote essays to go with their designs, then presented them to their families at the end of the month.
Last summer’s first All Stars program took 10 kids from Browne and Garcia middle schools in Oak Cliff. School faculty nominated students they thought would benefit, and Acosta and his team took kids based on their STAAR scores, behavior, and ability to come to the program each day. At first, he says, some of the kids didn’t want to be there—sessions ran from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays. They were “groggy,” and they didn’t really understand what it was.
But, as the month went on, the teachers noticed a shift in the students’ demeanor and attitude to education. The kids “were the ones showing up earlier than us,” Acosta says. “Sometimes they wanted to stay even longer.” And they saw results on paper, too. The students’ math and literacy skills improved by at least half a year, he says.
For the 2023 All Stars program, they hope to take on more students, Acosta says, but that’s dependent on funding. Last year, they were sponsored by Uniformity Print Studio, which donated merch for the kids to wear; Dallas College Mountain View, which donated space for the program; and the Dallas Mavericks, which donated the shoes.
Besides expanding All Stars, Acosta says Pasos has big plans for 2023. The nonprofit wants to give out 2,000 pairs of shoes this year, doubling how many it’s already passed out. In July, it’s planning a Pasos Sneaker Festival. The point would be to distribute 3,000-plus backpacks, shoes, and socks, Acosta says, but they would also host community services there and a college fair. “It’s really about us offering opportunity to our community,” Acosta says
Beyond just this year, Pasos wants to open a community campus, add a film component to the All Stars program, and work to find other ways to bring the arts and education together.
But all this will take a time commitment. Acosta says he’s already used 80 percent of his PTO this year on Pasos. So, he’s planning to quit teaching to go full time at the nonprofit. It’s scary, he says, but Pasos for Oak Cliff has “turned into something I did not expect.”
And he wants to keep up the pace.