When high school sweethearts Kelly and Alisa Ward became U.S. missionaries in 2007, they began working with compassion ministries in rural areas, serving at public schools and helping to respond to various crises.
One of their early efforts involved providing support at a school in Mississippi still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
“We gave out some shoes,” Alisa remembers. “The kids loved it, and families were so relieved. We thought that shoe distribution was a one-time thing and were glad to have one less thing to handle.”
Never could the Wards have imagined that by 2022, they would be leading a ministry called Sole Mission, distributing 610,000 pairs of shoes from one corner of the United States to the other — including snow boots in Alaska.
DIGNITY AND SUSTAINABILITY
In 2008, the Wards’ missionary leader, Steve Donaldson (director of Rural Compassion at the time), said he wanted to make ministry via shoes sustainable. Alisa suggested that he should get women involved, as women are often the ones responsible for budgeting and shopping for the ongoing footwear needs of their families. Steve agreed — and put Alisa, who lives in Texas, in charge.
Alisa called the South Texas Assemblies of God Ministries. At women’s conferences within two weeks she had raised $5,000 and received pledges of $10,000 more.
In 2011, when Rural Compassion merged with Convoy of Hope, Sole Mission became its own entity. Sole Mission hosts outreaches and provides training that reach far beyond what a local church can accomplish on its own. By providing shoes for those who cannot afford them, the Wards and their partners have compassionately reached urban areas, Native American reservations, and elsewhere.
“Dignity is a big thing for us here at Sole Mission,” Kelly says. “We want anyone to feel welcome and to understand that God loves them, all the way down to their toes.”
No matter who a person is, trained volunteers at each outreach carefully wipe their feet, put new socks and shoes on them, and tell them how deeply the Lord loves them, even to the point of sending His Son to die for them. For children being served, adult volunteers will spend 10 to 15 minutes helping and listening.
Kelly recalls serving a young man who arrived at the outreach wearing his grandmother’s shoes, and a boy who came wearing shoes three sizes too small.
“Their toes grow crooked when their shoes are that small,” Kelly says. Another young girl came wearing the one pair of shoes owned and shared between her mother and herself; she wore them to school during the day, and her mother wore them to waitress at night.
Some kids who come to the outreaches receive their first pair of new shoes.
STEPPING INTO ACTION
In days gone by, Alisa and her nationwide team of skilled volunteer shoppers used to be able to purchase shoes for about $5 per pair. Today, it costs nearly $15 per pair, even at the deepest discounts. The Wards are careful to source shoes from local vendors.
“It is complex and time consuming to raise the budget, find shoes, and to travel pulling trailers of shoes,” Alisa says. “At most events, we are supplied with about 750 pairs of shoes in all sizes.”
Kelly and Alisa make their home in a church closed following Hurricane Harvey. The facility is not only their home; it is also the warehouse in which they store thousands of shoes and other outreach equipment.
Over the years, Kelly and Alisa’s remarkable activities have attracted a partnership with Bombas socks, and much to their shock, got them featured on “Returning the Favor,” hosted by Mike Rowe. Their most vital partnerships, however, are with local congregations, some of which supply as many as 800 pairs of shoes for outreaches.
“We are raising people up to do what we do — we want to work ourselves out of a job,” Kelly says. “We must keep multiplying ourselves. We need young people to come work with us, and eventually take charge.”
“Their ministry is top notch, meeting a specific need on a continual basis,” Clark says. “Kelly and Alisa are experts who know how to respond to enormous need. They and other missionaries like them are helping churches get out of their own four walls and do what they should be doing.”
When the Wards moved to San Antonio in 1999, the late U.S. missionary Edgar Ackerman informed them that he had been praying for their arrival for 15 years. Though Edgar later lost his life to cancer, his legacy and partnership with Kelly and Alisa continues through his daughter and son-in-law, Misti and Jason Brooks. Having sold a software company to become U.S. missionaries, Jason and Misti began serving with Intercultural Ministries in leading AGORA Ministries.
Located in the projects of westside San Antonio, AGORA Ministries partners with churches and businesses to serve the underprivileged through weekly kids’ outreaches, youth ministry, food distributions, and tutoring.
AGORA (meaning “marketplace” as mentioned in Acts 17:17) also is responsible for three churches and built an apartment complex out of shipping containers to house its interns. The ministry is working with doctors to launch a free medical clinic.
Concerned with a lack of missionaries in American urban centers, business-savvy Jason and Misti are establishing a missionary Bible school, and already have obtained facilities, including staff housing. There they plan to have 16 missionaries on staff to provide Bible training coupled with boots-on-the-ground missionary training.
“We want to give people experience walking alongside the broken, organizing large outreach events,” Jason says. “Kids who are part of our ministries are getting shot walking home from basketball.”
Outside of AGORA, Jason and Misti volunteer alongside Kelly and Alisa at Sole Mission shoe distributions.
“Kelly and Alisa have done multiple events at AGORA centers,” Misti says. “They are incredible at serving real people.”
Jason remembers one Iraqi immigrant who came to such an outreach and managed to obtain shoes for his nine children. Prior to the Sole Mission event, his children had been obliged to share shoes.
As an ordained AG minister, an endorsed mental health chaplain, and a licensed counselor, Kelly also serves with pastors and other leaders to serve communities in various crises. Most recently, he worked as a counselor in Uvalde, Texas, following the school massacre in May. Sole Mission also went to the shattered Uvalde community in a privately hosted event for 240 children.
“There are no geographic limits to how we can serve,” says Alisa, herself a licensed minister and an endorsed community chaplain. “We’ll go anywhere.”