GILLETTE — Mikelle Schmit stared at the pile of transparent plastic bags that has only grown taller and wider since May. She inhaled the humid garage air and exhaled relief that she still has more than a month to meet her goal.
Next to the hill of bagged and rubber-banded pairs of shoes as tall as her, more gently used sneakers, sandals and boots sat in a separate, smaller pile waiting to be sorted.
There are about 12,600 pairs in all.
“It’s insane,” she said about the Herculean collection effort.
But for those who incorrectly and categorically define insanity as repeating the same actions again and again in anticipation of different results, understand that this is not the case for Mikelle and her husband, Josh.
They are open to and have tried just short of everything when it comes to fundraising for their upcoming adoption, which could cost in the neighborhood of $50,000.
Now they have turned to a shoe drive to help reach their adoption fundraising goals. Through Shoes With Heart, a Florida-based organization, the Schmits have through August to amass 25,000 shoes. Once that goal is met, the organization will pick them up in exchange for $10,000 to go toward adopting the couple’s first child.
Shoes With Heart sends the shoes to developing nations like Haiti and parts of Latin America and Africa, where they help boost local economies. They can be resold, given away or used to make other things. The organization calls it an evolution of repurposing things as “reusing with a purpose.”
The Schmits’ latest effort to make their adoption happen has turned their garage into a shoe warehouse. Before that they sold T-shirts, hot chocolate bombs during the holidays and even ran an Easter egg-related side hustle to cover the fees and expenses that come with adopting a child.
“The cost is a huge barrier for a lot of people,” Mikelle said.
But coming from a family where adoption was the norm, the idea of starting her own family the same way has been a long time in the making.
When Mikelle was growing up, she always knew that she wanted to start a family of her own through adoption. She and her biological sister, Jes Hallock, were joined by two adopted brothers when they were kids.
Her mother, Karlene Hallock, also had always wanted to adopt since she was a child. That same idea of family — namely, that you don’t have to share blood to share a bond — was passed on to Mikelle.
T.J., who is now 26, first joined the family from South Korea as a baby when Mikelle was 6. Then came Luke, now 19, a few years later.
Both grew up and still live in Gillette as part of the family.
“To me, that’s very natural to add a family member that way,” she said.
Seven years ago on her their first date, Mikelle shared with Josh her interest in starting her family one day through adoption, as opposed to the more traditional route.
While that may be a lot of information to soak in on any date, let alone the first, Josh accepted the idea, but wanted some time to consider it.
“He came back and said, ‘I don’t need my kids to look like me to love them,’” Mikelle said.
They are now in the process of a domestic transracial adoption. If all goes as planned, they could adopt their first child next spring.
“I’m finding more and more that with transracial adoption, it’s more than just about what you’re open to, but also how you’re going to bring your child’s heritage and culture into the aspect as well,” Mikelle said.
Having grown up in a white family in a white community with two non-white brothers, Mikelle believes Gillette is a good place to raise that kind of blended family and said it’s even better now than when she and her brothers were growing up.
The mantra Josh adopted regarding adoption on their first date is still true for both.
“We don’t need our kid to look like us to love him,” she said.
But before they can meet their future child, they have about 12,000 more pairs of shoes to track down.
When he left on the nearly seven-hour drive east to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Josh questioned if he should be dragging a trailer along.
The life of a used shoe purveyor was still new to him. As recently as a year ago, hauling a truck and empty trailer across state lines to pick up used shoes wasn’t exactly in his cards.
Yet there he was. Alone in the cab of his truck, wondering if he was going to be hauling a near-empty trailer back to Campbell County. But one stop in Sioux Falls and 1,000 pairs of shoes later, Josh had the bed of his pickup, its backseat and the trailer all filled with a variety of footwear.
Josh even made it back before the odor of all that used footwear got too stinking bad.
“If you let them sit in there, especially in this heat for a few days, it definitely gets to smelling,” he said.
Even a few months ago when the call for donations started going out, Josh wasn’t sure 25,000 pairs was a realistic goal.
“I told her it was going to be impossible to start with,” Josh said. “I’m like ‘Twenty-five hundred? I can see that. Twenty-five thousand? That’s another story.’”
But Mikelle, acutely aware of the indirect effects of American consumerism and excess, believed otherwise.
“Americans have a lot of shoes,” she said.
So far, shoes have arrived in their garage from all over. Collections have been picked up and even mailed to them from other parts of Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.
As the donations came pouring in, the Schmits realized both how capable the region was of fulfilling their fundraising requirements, as well as just how much space 25,000 pairs of shoes actually takes up.
When they get a carload dropped off, it’s usually about 100 pairs. While that is a lot of straps and soles by most standards, it’s still a deceptively small part of the grand total for as much space as it fills.
At just over the halfway mark of their goal, it’s hard to imagine that mass of sneakers growing any wider or taller.
Until it does.
“People just keep coming out of the woodwork (with donations),” Mikelle said.
One of those people is Christy Stauffacher, who had never met Mikelle before seeing a video she posted on a Facebook page for the fundraiser.
In the video that gained several thousand views, Mikelle appealed to the social media abyss to bring her used shoes for her future adoption.
Stauffacher cried and watched the video three times before reaching out to help.
“I felt something that I can’t explain to you, but I knew I had to help,” she said. “It turned out to be something really fun. They are great. They are such a great couple.”
Now she runs around town picking up donations from various drop-off sites throughout Gillette. She and her husband even bag the pairs of shoes in their own garage before taking them to the main pile, saving Mikelle and Josh an extra step.
This year during Sleepy Hollow Days — a neighborhood yard sale that happens in Stauffacher’s subdivision — she handed out flyers for the shoe drive and contacted all of her neighbors running garage sales.
In the process she gathered 1,000 pairs.
“I’m so ready to just make that pile twice as big,” Stauffacher said.
It’s almost like the bigger the mound of laces and leather grows, the smaller the garage gets.
Before the pile got out of control, Josh stored a boat in there. But it just kept getting pushed closer and closer to the edge of the garage until eventually docking outside.
“I was working on a boat then the shoes took over and flushed it clean outside,” Josh said. “Yeah, there ain’t no room for both.”
There may not be space for boats, trucks or mowers anymore, but an expecting family has to have its priorities. Before clearing out space for a nursery, they’ll have to find room for the next load of shoes.
“I think that people want to be a part of something good,” Mikelle said.
Given the number of strangers who have already donated from across the country — and the countless others who wore and gave away the shoes building up in the Schmit household — so far, that’s proven true.