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I read a small article in The Week magazine about Tom McNamara, also known as “The Sockman.” This retired special education teacher from Illinois found a new calling – collecting a donating socks to the homeless. I was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with the man, who is in the process of selling his house, saddling up in an RV, and taking his sermon to the road, full-time, all-the-time. Below you’ll find our interview:
Jake Miller, The Educator’s Room: I see you were a special education teacher. How long did you teach for?
Tom McNamara, “The Sock Man”: I taught for 30 years in all levels of school. I finished my career by teaching students with autism. This group of students made me look into my future, and I wish I chose to work with them from day 1. I’ve learned more from these kids than I could’ve ever given them. They’re so much fun. I’m also proud to say that my daughter has followed me into the profession as a special education teacher in AZ.
JM: Besides those on the spectrum, what other types of students did you teach?
TM: I taught the mentally and mildly impaired – each state has a different name for them, but that’s what they’re referred to in Illinois. They’re the kids “in-between.” They’re not behavior issues, but just a bit behind and great group of kids to work with. Every day I went home with a smile on my face and many thanks to God.
JM: Did they inspire you to become “The Sock Man?”
TM: I knew I was retiring and wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. I wanted to continue giving back to the community, and I met a gentleman in Philadelphia who ran a program called The Joy of Sox. He and his wife inspired me. They went to homeless shelters and I couldn’t fathom how touching it would be. I was also blown away by the correlation I made with my profession in special education, in which parents love these people – call them students or homeless – why others shy away. I loved watching these people who others saw as invisible, and I felt bad because nobody wanted to deal with them. So I found a way to help.
JM: Most readers will want to know – what inspired you to sell your house, buy an RV, and take this mission to the road, full-time?
TM: My kids are grown, and I really decided that instead of staying in one geographic area, start a corporation, or having a bunch of people work for or under me, I wanted to be my own motivator. I am "the Sock Man." So my dog and I will take to the road in our RV very soon.
TM: My friends have been fabulous in financing me and promoting me, as have friends and people I meet in the community. One friend I met in Louisiana has put her full support behind me for the past 2 years, as have others. People I have yet to meet and hardly know are reaching out to me, like yourself, and I just love it because there is so much help needed out there; more and more families are being displaced and getting the tail end of life.
JM: I saw you originally intended to provide shoes to the homeless. What caused you to focus on socks?
TM: The homeless can get pretty much everything, including a lot of clothes. However, two things that don’t receive much of are underpants and socks. I spoke with a podiatrist told me that their feet get so worn and unhealthy, mostly because they wear the same socks day-in, day-out, so I wanted to make people aware of the fact that’s what they’re missing. The homeless have responded in such positive ways and made it so heartwarming, I’ve been overwhelmed. Their eyes and the smiles say it all.
JM: What is your goal? How far are you towards meeting it?
TM: Originally the goal was to get 5,000 pair of socks, into the hands of the homeless. We met that goal. Now I'm hoping to raise 5,000 more and $10,000 on my GoFundMe site – so the money and socks are just starting to pour in.
JM: How long to you expect to be doing this?
TM: I just applied to the International Volunteer HQ to do homeless work for 5 months in Costa Rica, where I’ll work with autistic kids there until I come back and pick it up where I left off. I plan on doing this ‘to the end,” and the passion just seems grow every day and every place I go. I’m willing to go anywhere to deliver the message, not just to collect dollars, and several schools have already welcomed me.
JM: You seem to be very inspired by religion in your mission. Care to elaborate?
TM: I know who’s driving my bus. While I was satisfied as a teacher, I noticed that there was a new hole in my life. God then directed me this way and, since then, I’ve gotten more out of it than I’ve given. It might sound awkward, but it’s true.
JM: What have your former colleagues thought of your travels?
TM: When I announced my plan to friends and family, they acted as if I were crazy. I’m 60, and they thought I should be able to keep it together. Go off into pasture. However, my passion for this project was very evident. For Christmas I didn’t want any presents, I just wanted socks – and my immediate family supplied me with 3,000 pairs of socks. I’ve found those who were detractors are now supporters.
JM: Have you heard from any of your former students?
TM: Three or four of my former students have reached out to me, as have many of the clubs and teams I used to coach in gymnastics. There are now competitions being held to raise money for this great cause. They say as you become older, your world gets smaller, but mine continues to expand!
JM: Has the Polar Vortex highlighted a need to help the homeless?
TM: I continued to blog and Facebook that while others are worried about their water and their kids at bus stops, the homeless are out in the streets trying to find a place to rest and survive. Even at that, there are still so many people that these shelters can’t house. Then they’re battling to stay alive in the bushes, beneath blankets, and worse. No human being should have to endure that. It makes me cry thinking about it.
JM: You said that some of the greatest heartbreak you’ve encountered on the road has been involving teenagers. How does your “teaching” instinct kick in here?
TM: The teenagers are more open to conversation, while the adults are more hardened. Teens have called [/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][the non-homeless] “Normees,” and when I sit down with them, they’re very surprised that an adult – especially an older one – wants to sit down with them and chat. Once I talk to them for a bit, I ask them about their story and how they got there. One kid was tossed aside in California after his parents divorced. He hitchhiked across the country to NYC and became a squatter there. He met a girl there and they were making their way to New Orleans, where I met them in Alabama. When I found them resting back-to-back, it looked like they were holding one another up and holding up their world. I can’t promise everything to them, but I can promise good conversation, food, warmth, and socks. Not all that different from school.
JM: What can the average teacher / adult do to better help the homeless around them?
TM: The best thing is to give them material things – bottles of water and socks, undergarments, etc. Go to shelters and provide toiletries and other things that we take for granted. Giving people something as easy as socks is encouraging to those less fortunate. I don’t give money and wouldn’t advise you to, either.
I would also recommend volunteering once a month to serve meals or just chat with these “forgotten people.” The biggest thing that I’ve learned is that these people want to communicate. There are those who are mentally ill and want little to do with you, the majority just want to talk and ask them how their day is and hold attention eye-to-eye.
JM: If there’s one wish you could have to help those in need, what would you wish for?
TM: That's a really good question that I could think on for quite some time. Maybe to provide for the ⅔ of homeless who really could use it – ⅓ of the people are mentally ill and need medical help, but continue in refusing to take it; ⅓ are veterans who lost their way and don’t get the proper help they need or they don’t try to get it; the remaining ⅓ fall into mixed categories – addicts and self-righteous people; others who haven’t hit rock bottom and mostly don’t want our help.
JM: What’s one uplifting part you’ve found in your travels?
TM: The Justa Center in Arizona completely supports a successful life for homeless who are aged 55+ and not on any drugs. Within their entire compound, they provide housing, food, clean clothing, washers, dryers, medical care, and more. They really get these people on their feet. However, they’re the only one in the country. I wish there were more.
JM: What message do you have for other retirees who are seeking to find their way after leaving the classroom?
TM: There are so many things that they can do for the homeless; I just started looking on YouTube to learn small things I can do. Did you know that people have figured out way to crochet mats out of plastic bags to give to the homeless for them to lay on rather than cardboard? It saves the environment and is something that’s an improvement for these desperate people. There’s also another video that shows them how to build a heater from paint cans. There are plenty of ways to help the homeless, and there are many other things retired teachers can do to change their community for the better.
JM: How can our readers help with your mission?
TM: Go to the GoFundMe site for a financial donation. Send socks to my house [address available upon request]. Act as a hub to collect socks in the area and invite me to come and collect them. Lastly, they could just spread the message or say some prayers for me and my continuous mission.
JM: Thank you so much, Tom, and God Bless!
TM: Thank you, Jake! I look forward to hearing more from The Educator's Room.
Author's Note: Tom McNamara, "The Sock Man," is a huge Chicago Blackhawks fan. You can also help drum up support for this former 10-season-ticketholder (he gave up his tickets for this mission) and make his "dream" to collect socks at a Blackhawks game by tweeting Brandon Faber (@FaberBrandon), the Director of Communications, and Adam Rogowin (@AdamRogowin), the Director of PR. Just say you want them to welcome the "Sock Man" home![/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]