Pasos for Oak Cliff: Providing sneakers for success, one pair at a time

Story by Jennie Trejo. Video by Jedarrian Jones and Jennie Trejo. Photos provided Pasos for Oak Cliff.

A nonprofit in Oak Cliff is making significant strides in nurturing the community, one step at a time. Meet Pasos for Oak Cliff, an organization that represents co-founders Alejandra Zendejas and Jesse Acosta’s love for both their neighborhood– and sneakers.

The Pasos mission is to create social upward mobility and economic prosperity in minority communities through culturally relevant inspired educational programs and events. In the last year, they have donated over 3,000 pairs of shoes, given out $38,400 in scholarships, and enrolled 30 students in their “Pasos All Stars” educational program.

This accomplishment in only its third year of operation is impressive, especially considering how Jesse and Alejandra had little-to-no experience in nonprofit work before deciding to start Pasos together. They both self-describe as “kids from Oak Cliff that wanted to get involved with the youth, because it starts with them.”

Co-founders of Pasos for Oak Cliff, Alejandra Zendejas and Jesse Acosta.

Originally from Leon, Guanajuato in Mexico, Alejandra moved to Oak Cliff as a child and quickly felt deeply connected to the community, its culture, and its people. “I went to all public schools here, saw the culture and how kids here are into sneakers,” Alejandra says. “So naturally, my sister and I were really into sneakers growing up, and we loved how the community bands together for everything.”

Jesse, also an Oak Cliff native, shares the sentiment. He attended Kimball High School, and after attending the University of Texas at Austin with Alejandra and joking that he never planned on returning, he eventually did. After graduating, Jesse joined Teach for America, which allowed him to come back and become a ninth-grade teacher in the same hallways he used to walk as a teenager.

“Sneakers became my carrot to create connections with the students,” Jesse says. He became affectionately known as the “Sneaker Teacher” and would bond with them over it. However, he began to notice that some students desperately needed a new pair of shoes.

“When you were in school, kids look at your shoes and determine how cool you are based on what you’re wearing,” Alejandra explains. “But Jesse noticed that it’s not that the kids were wearing off-brands, but the shoes were torn up or worn out and falling apart.”

Jesse says it was not uncommon to see students that had been wearing the same shoes since sixth grade, and were likely not the same size three years later, as freshmen in high school.

“We found out that it’s about more than wearing cool shoes. It was about not even being comfortable in your shoes,” Jesse says.

Jesse’s experience as a teacher made him acutely aware of the challenges of providing a student with a new pair of shoes, primarily due to the barriers and uncertainties involved in such a gesture. This experience, though disheartening, ignited a spark that led Jesse and Alejandra to take action.

“During the pandemic, many of my students were messaging me about their parents losing jobs or having to go to the hospital,” Jesse explains. “We just wanted to do something that felt good. We honestly weren’t even thinking about measurables like grades or increasing attendance, we just wanted to do something good in that moment. So we decided to donate 50 pairs of sneakers.”

As a result, Jesse and Alejandra started a GoFundMe to raise money for new shoes for students in need. While their goal was 50 pairs, they ended up raising over $4,500, which was enough for 150 pairs of shoes.

“And we still had a waitlist,” Jesse says. “So it was like, do we do it again? We eventually did, and raised another $3,000. We just kept going from there, and now we’re sitting here,” Jesse says, gesturing to the wall of sneakers behind him.

Jesse and Alejandra have since developed a few different ways to distribute the shoes. The first way is through partnerships with schools, where they rely on teachers like Jesse, who pay close attention to their students and can recommend which ones need new shoes.

The second model is through a Sneaker Festival held at Kimball High School in the summer, where students can “shop” a sneaker wall and choose which pair they would like. Pasos also partners with Genesis Women’s Shelter and Lullaby House to help get shoes to moms throughout the city who need them for their kids.

Beyond the sneakers

Jesse and Alejandra both recognize the profound effect that something as simple as a good pair of shoes can have on a student. The lack of proper footwear can decrease school attendance, impact academic performance, and result in a lack of physical activity.

To deepen its impact, Pasos has introduced education programs to run alongside the sneaker distribution initiative. This is called the “Pasos All Stars,” an intervention program for rising ninth graders in the summer and high school students during the academic school year. They focus on helping students affected by learning loss in literacy and math.

Jesse and Alejandra have weaved their passions throughout the programming they offer students. The curriculum combines sneaker design and filmmaking to help motivate students. Jesse double majored in film, so he wanted to introduce that passion to students in Oak Cliff as well. As a result, students meet growth goals and use their new knowledge to design original sneakers and direct short films.

“The theme is to pick either a nonprofit or an individual or business doing good in the community and create a documentary or a narrative short film over them,” Jesse says. Once students have finished their projects, they are presented to the community at the Pasos All Stars Showcase.

In the future, Jesse and Alejandra plan to continue developing their programs to reach more students. They also hope to continue to be a pillar of support and build healthy relationships in the community.

“At first, we would send kids off with shoes and just hope they would do well,” Alejandra says. “But we’ve been trying to start that connection from receiving shoes from us, but also coming back to our summer programs. And if you want to go to college, you can get a scholarship from us. If you want a mentor, we can connect you there, too.”

In the short time that Pasos for Oak Cliff has been operating, they have already made a profound impact on students. There is one in particular– Keyonna– that has also made an impact on Jesse and Alejandra.

Keyonna was part of the original Pasos All Stars Program. She has also returned for the sneaker design program, and then again, for the filmmaking program.

“We knew her for two years, and she would tell us she was grateful,” Jesse says, “but I did not realize how deep the connection was until the end of the year when we were doing interviews.”

Jesse says that Keyonna would get emotional describing what Pasos means to her, which made him realize what the program has truly created for students in their neighborhood.

“She’s very shy,” Alejandra explains. “I would say she’s similar to me because I don’t express myself like that to people. And I think she also has a hard time. But on the last day, she was hugging all the teachers and saying, ‘Thank you for everything.’ I mean, you don’t think about that until you see that from that the kids, and you’re like, ‘Wow.’”

If you would like to learn more about Pasos for Oak Cliff or learn how you can get involved, you can visit their website here.