Feature photo of the founder of New Soles, Lij ‘Chocky’ Tswago Sr., enjoys ice cream at the nonprofit’s annual National Ice Cream Day serving free ice cream to community members and residents of the Anna Sample Shelter in Camden. Photo by Marc Bueller
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation.
By Charles Curtis III | AC JosepH Media/SJIEP
CAMDEN — It is a sweltering hot summer evening in July and cooling off is on everyone’s mind. But the residents of the Centerville section of Camden are in for a sweet surprise: As the distant sound of a familiar jingle grows closer and louder, members of the local non-profit New Soles, Inc. have just arrived – and along with them, a Mr. Softee ice cream truck.
New Soles hosted its annual National Ice Cream Day event a few days after the actual holiday, which landed on Sunday this year. Instead, the event coincided with New Soles’ mentoring program which takes place at the Branch Village Community Center on the last Wednesday of every month from 6:00-7:30 pm.
So, in addition to helping kids and parents who live near the center to cool down with free ice cream and frozen treats, this event was a chance to connect people with local resources. For New Soles, this outreach starts with a gifted pair of new shoes.
Founded in July of 2016, New Soles, Inc. is a nonprofit organization based in Camden. Its mission, “is to revitalize the souls of our courageous future leaders; through guidance, positive life experiences & mentorship initiated by the impact of gifted footwear.”
And youth who take part in New Soles’ mentoring program also receive financial literacy and photography workshops. They are encouraged to learn to play chess and introduced to new career paths.
Born and raised in the Centerville section of Camden, New Soles founder Lij Tswago Sr. is affectionately known by the community as “Chocky.” New Soles is all about realizing potential and expanding the realm of possibility for young people, says Chocky: after all, “a person can be the best piano player but they might never know if they don’t play.”
As he helps young people to find their passion, Chocky draws on his own affinity for collecting new shoes. “I have over 300 pairs,” says Chocky, “I could wear a different pair every day of the year!” Now through News Soles, he can use this passion to start conversations and build relationships with local youth – relationships he hopes will keep them on the right path.
“My mom worked two jobs and I had no positive male role models growing up,” said Chocky. As a child, he was eager to help provide for his family and lacking direction, took some wrong turns. By the time he was 18 years old, Chocky would be arrested and sentenced to 20 years. But Chocky would serve just under 10 years.
“Prison was a transformative experience,” said Chocky. Upon release, he looked for ways to give back to the community. Chocky soon began work near Camden’s Central Waterfront district at the Anna M.Sample House Complex – which provides emergency and transitional housing for women, children, and families experiencing homelessness.
Chocky became well known amongst the residents, connecting with them over their shared love for sneakers. And after six years of working in social services, Chocky decided to start an organization to help at-risk youth.
One of the young people he met at the Anna Sample shelter reminded Chocky of a younger version of himself. In that moment, he reflected on his life and how poverty could similarly influence this young man’s decisions.
Chocky felt a strong connection and an urge to intervene: “He can easily go left trying to provide for his family,” he thought. “He’s me, I need to help him.” Choky decided to gift the teenager with a pair of sneakers, and the act of kindness inspired the creation of New Soles.
After a conversation between Chocky and Brandon Horsey, his cousin and future board member, he enlisted several like-minded individuals to serve as board members for the organization. And the group got to work, serving young people in the community.
“When my cousin initially shared the idea of his vision, I instantly said ‘let’s do it.’ said Horsey, who also works in law enforcement as a correctional officer.
“With my background in coaching basketball and my personal journey, I knew there were children who needed to be shown a different way to do things and I knew we could show them that different way,” he said. “I would have never imagined New Soles would have grown into what it has become. I’m grateful for what we’ve accomplished.”
In 2018 the nonprofit, run by Chocky and a group of five board members, became one of 6 organizations approved and utilized by the county Youth Services Commission and the Camden County Probation Division as a site for juveniles to receive mentoring service towards fulfilling their probation requirements.
Starting in March 2022, New Soles board members, who also serve as youth mentors, began hosting monthly “Soles of Tomorrow” mentoring workshops at Branch Village Community Center. The group first partnered with the center last year for the News Soles Christmas toy drive.
“We meet them where they’re at,”said Cat Paige of the organization’s approach to engaging the youth. “With each one that we mentor we get to understand their area of need, find out what that is and get into that pocket,” said Paige, a board member and lifelong friend of Choky’s.
“I think of when I was 5 or 6 and having to put cardboard in my shoes,” said Paige. “Because of the holes in them, I had to avoid puddles.” She works as a finance administrator at Chase Bank and makes time to volunteer with New Soles. Her early struggles, and a desire to help children with similar experiences, deeply motivate her service with the nonprofit.
To date, New Soles reports it has distributed over 600 pairs of footwear to the community.
“New Soles, Inc. gets the footwear based on funding that’s available to us. We receive donations, be it shoes or monetary. We hold fundraisers throughout the year and that money goes to buying the footwear,” says Chocky, adding that he and the board members have purchased footwear themselves for donations.
Community partnerships have also helped. For instance, Choky’s connection with the Anna Sample Shelter has led to an ongoing collaboration in which New Soles members volunteer at the shelter and provide assistance to families in need.
“Shoes are only the starting point.” Says Chocky as New Soles has found several ways to engage the youth beyond sneaker distribution.
The nonprofit has hosted annual socials and Christmas toy drives, inviting community members to volunteer. New Soles has also run multiple back-to-school book bag drives, provided uniform vouchers, and even provided a trip for 50 kids to pick out their sneakers for the new school year.
“We are concerned about the whole kid,” said Paige. She added, “We don’t forget the parents and we want to offer them some reprieve.” For example, their work to improve the quality of life for Camden youth and families has also extended to advocacy for internet access.
In 2020 the organization headed the “No Child Left Offline” campaign in response to the digital divide among New Jersey school children at the height of the pandemic. During a time when schools were closed and turned to online learning, New Soles helped over 80 low-income families in Camden County to apply for high-speed internet service packages from Comcast.
The nonprofit also worked with sponsors including The Barbers Lounge, PSEG and Wal-Mart to cover the $9.95 monthly fees for these special packages available to families in need. The partnership was facilitated by New Soles board member Jane Doughue who is also a Comcast employee.
“To be able to help fill that gap was an amazing feeling. Even though the world stopped, it was imperative that our young people were still able to learn and grow and we were able to allow that to happen,” said Chocky of the initiative.
In August New Soles announced its plans for expanding its mentoring services with regular community meetings at Branch Village Townhomes and the William Stanley Ablett Village. The organization continues to make an impact by motivating local youth, giving them a pair of shoes and helping them step into their purpose.
“Meeting Chock and working with New Soles, Inc. has changed my views on how I live my life,” says mentee Alex Smith. “I know so many things now that I didn’t know before meeting them. Chock always encourages me to challenge myself. New Soles is a blessing. I can’t thank them enough.”
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