By Katie Benfield
For Jason Berry, owner of Footsloggers Outdoor and Travel Outfitters, leading an active lifestyle is nothing new. He has hiked the Appalachian Trail, spent time working as a raft guide, majored in outdoor-based degrees and has lived in the beautiful outdoorsy town of Boone since 1998.
However, those aren’t the only things that make him an active member of our community.
Berry has taken action to help support the Back 2 School Festival that is happening on Aug. 8 at Watauga High School. This festival is hosted by the Women’s Fund of the Blue Ridge, Quiet Givers and many more with the desire to provide Watauga County kids with school supplies and the positive attitude to get the school year started off on the right foot.
“I heard that some funding fell through, and they needed some assistance and some volunteer work and that there was a gap there they were concerned with,” Berry said. “So, I saw this as an opportunity for us to step in and do whatever we could.”
According to Amber Bateman, director of Quiet Givers, Berry contacted her about sponsoring the festival.
“We didn’t contact him. He contacted us,” said Bateman. “Having a store with such a long standing in the community approach us to help really meant a lot.”
Bateman said Berry was interested in the needs of the children in the community and what kind of relief the Back 2 School Festival was offering.
“He was just open about it,” Bateman said. “He asked a lot of questions and was very interested in everything we were doing.”
Berry committed to financially supporting the Back 2 School program for three years straight and is now in his second year as a title sponsor.
“It became very evident right off that this was a strong concept,” Berry said. “I signed a three-year title sponsorship in order to provide them with some consistency. It was such a strong concept, and it just needed something to help get it off its feet.”
Although financial support for such a good cause is important, Berry also had other ideas for how to help. He wanted to use his influence to negotiate with vendors and use the store’s position in the community to really make a difference. After all, the store has been a significant part of the High Country since 1971.
The high cost of materials and growing classroom sizes often find public school educators covering costs with money from their own pockets. Because his wife is a teacher, Bateman said, Berry understands how difficult it is for teachers and for parents to afford those materials.
“I have a seven year old boy,” Berry said, “and if we weren’t able to provide him with brand new clothes or nice school supplies or a haircut to help him feel really nice on his first day of school, it might be tough to deal with as a family.”
With that in mind, Footsloggers will be donating 400 backpacks to the Back 2 School Festival in order to provide children with bags for the school year. To help cover the costs of these bags, Footsloggers will be accepting $5 donations in the store.
“I thought this would be a good idea for us to help with the consistency of the event,” Berry said. “If I’m donating a certain number of backpacks, they know they can count on those being there.
“This way, they know what to expect, and they get to really be specific with styles and colors. They used to only get random donations here and there of backpacks, which is always generous, but this way they know exactly what to count on.”
Even for the children who get school-issued backpacks, Footsloggers is setting up a booth at the festival where each child can get theirs personalized.
“Berry’s been great to work with and he’s been so open to ideas and stuff,” Bateman said. “Even when things would fall through, he was still so committed to it.”
Berry was, in fact, committed to this idea from the time he heard about it for reasons other than financial sponsorship.
“I was thinking about the youth in our area,” Berry said. “Was middle school a comfortable or an uncomfortable time? I think for about 98 percent of us, it was an uncomfortable time because there was a lot to figure out. You know, it pulls on your emotions, putting yourself in that child’s shoes.
“What a confidence booster for the first day this can be – you’re able to walk into school with your chin up, a fresh new haircut and school supplies. You can look your peers in their eyes, and I think that’s just a huge confidence boost.”
Like many others, Berry said that he believes in supporting youth in whatever way we are able to, financially or emotionally.
“I think it’s so important in society,” Berry said. “I think anything we can do to support the confidence in our children right now goes further than we believe.”