After spending time with the city's homeless community and distributing hygiene items and clothing, Daniel Fowler was inspired to create lasting change and conceptualized Reunion Shoe Co. in 2017. The New Orleans-based footwear company employees people transitioning out of homelessness, while also providing counseling and a supportive team of peers and mentors a.k.a. the tools required to create productive lives and heal from past trauma.
"When you purchase a pair of Reunion Shoes, you ensure that our employees receive honest wages, weekly appointments with a social worker, and professional counseling."
Reunion Shoe Co. hired its first employee in May 2018 and produces colorful sneakers for men, women, and children, as well as gifts and other accessories.
How did you originally become involved in advocating for the homeless community?
Back in high school, I became involved in an effort to distribute blankets to folks experiencing homelessness in the winter. The project, headed by my cousin, distributed thousands of blankets to folks in central Florida. Then in New Orleans, wanting to become closer to the community, I started a project called Ninth Hour Ministries. On top of also supplying certain physical needs, we also produced video interviews with folks experiencing homelessness in order to give them a platform for talking about their experiences. The relationships I created in these efforts was where I began to see the issues for folks that succeed in finding housing, but continue to struggle in new ways.
Why shoes? Were you in this industry before or was it completely new?
Footwear was a completely new field for me when we started the concept stage around four years ago. More than anything, we saw the value in something as universal and fun as sneakers to center the business around. Shoes are one of the pieces of your wardrobe that you can really have fun with. Our employees are generally very excited to be painting shoes over a lot of other entry-level jobs available.
Was the business modeled after others who do similar work or is this concept unique?
Many people are now familiar with "Social Business" or "Social Enterprise" nowadays. Generally speaking, a social enterprise is any business that aims to give back a community as a core part of its operations. Companies like TOMs have popularized the "Buy One, Give One" model of business, wherein the company gives away a pair of shoes to someone in need with every purchase made.
We use a slightly different tactic. We leverage business to directly assist folks that we hire into our organization. Rather than donate a pair of shoes to large numbers of people, we believe that this model can and does create lasting change in the lives of a handful of individuals. Our biggest model is Homeboy Industries, located in Los Angeles. Homebody Industries provides employment and holistic care for former gang members.
Who designs the products?
Our design process begins with me. Based on the time of year and desires of customers, I’ll generate somewhere between two and eight possible color options. From there, I create virtual mockups, show them to the team, and we begin to experiment together. We work to find the winning color combinations, and then we build a story and name for the collection.
Is there an organization you use while looking for employees or is it through word of mouth, etc.?
We have a variety of partnering organizations that refer candidates to us. This is great for us because it allows us to make sure that folks don’t fall through the cracks post-housing, effectively passing the baton from social workers and housing agencies to us. It also gives us the ability to collaborate with their existing network (with the employee's permission, of course) on how to best support them.
The level of support you offer your employees is amazing. Why did you decide to do this?
The need for holistic care is something I realized through spending time with the community. I had spent time distributing physical things like hygiene items, blankets, and clothing, but saw that folks without addresses needed much, much more than that. They also needed love and support.
As I began fostering relationships with some folks, I realized that they also needed more than a few nice words and a check-in. They needed good jobs, community, and often mental health care. Just like me, folks without homes are complex. Fixing just one of these things at a time doesn’t create happiness or stability.
Reunion Shoe Co. was our effort to respond to as many as these needs as possible. We do our best to care for folks coming out of homelessness in all of their needs: financial, physical, mental, and spiritual.