Socks for Change: West 49 founder Sam Baio puts his heart into warming feet

Jan 28, 2019 by Cheryl Clock – The St. Catharines Standard

In his mind, it was an easy fix. Give people who live in poverty wool socks, and they’ll at least have warm, dry feet.

He’s a fabric guy. And he knows that cotton tube socks just don’t cut it in the winter. They get wet, stay wet and make you cold. But team up wool and acrylic together, and you have a durable warm sock that pulls moisture away from the skin and keeps feet warm even when its wet.

Sam Baio is also a guy with a business savvy.

He founded West 49, the Canadian action sports and skateboard clothing chain, and was its president and CEO for years, growing the company to some 140 stores across Canada before he sold it to Australian company Billabong for millions in 2010. He stayed on for a couple of years as a consultant, then went on to other ventures. (It’s since been sold again.)

At 66, he has homes in Port Dalhousie and Nelson, B.C., where his two adult children and five grandkids live.

He started up an electric bike shop and is a consultant and director of a family resort in Invermere, B.C.

All that, and he has a heart to make a difference.

Three years ago, he was on his way home to Niagara listening to the radio, when he heard a CBC report about people in homeless shelters suffering from foot infections due, in part, to living with constantly cold, wet feet.

He knew from his own experience, that no matter how warmly he dressed up top, cold feet made him miserable.

“With a hole in your shoes and the weather like this, they stay cold, they stay wet and they stay frozen,” he said.

And that was unacceptable.

“I’m Italian. I feel guilty all the time,” he said, laughing.

He’s always believed in philanthropy. West 49 gave thousands of dollars to Make-A-Wish Canada for children battling a critical illness, it offered store credit to people who brought in their winter coats, then donated them to people in need, and it paid for its young employees to work on Habitat for Humanity home construction projects to, in his words, “find out there is more to life than being a teenager.”

He was on a mission.

So that summer, in 2016, he found a factory in Toronto that knit wool socks for the Canadian military. The owner liked Baio’s enthusiasm and sold him 2,500 pairs.

A couple of skids of socks were dropped off in his driveway and he stored them in his garage.

He gave 500 to a mission in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he grew up — “Yes, you can trust me” he assured the somewhat suspicious customs official at the border — 500 to an agency in Nelson, B.C., and 1,500 went to the Out of the Cold program in St. Catharines, which provides people with a hot meal and warm place to stay overnight when temperatures drop.

Demand was so high, the socks barely lasted a couple of weeks.

In anticipation of the next winter, Baio knew he needed more socks. But when he went back to the factory, it had closed.

Not easily defeated, and a believer in old-school conversation, he picked up the phone and called around to every Canadian knitting factory he could find. Word of mouth led him to McCormack Textiles in Etobicoke, a company that also knits military socks.

In the second year, he bought 5,000 pairs at cost and expanded from his garage into donated storage space at a warehouse in Beamsville.

And called it Socks for Change.

After the usual allotments to New York, B.C. and Out of the Cold, he was left with 2,500 pairs.

So he called across the region, loaded up his truck and personally delivered them to more than 20 organizations in Niagara that service people in need.

“I wanted to meet people,” he said. “I wanted to create relationships. I wanted to grow my own personal awareness.”

That year, a friend who operates winter gear company, Bula, donated 10,000 accessories including headbands, face masks, neck warmers and tuques. Baio paid the shipping costs from Montreal and delivered them himself, across the region.

And the he had a grim realization.

“This is nothing,” he said. “This is a drop in the bucket compared to what the community needs.”

By 2018, he had a small team of volunteers helping to distribute some 11,000 socks and 15,000 winter accessories to more than 100 agencies in Niagara, including elementary and high schools. Niagara Regional Police officers also have socks in their cruisers.

By spring, some 20,000 socks will have been given out in Niagara, he said.

He’s also received some donations from service clubs, online, and through coin boxes at various retailers across the region including Starbucks, the YMCA, Boggio Pharmacy and PenFinancial Credit Union, which also donated $10,000.

A donation of $2 will buy a pair of socks.

More donations are needed, as are volunteers to spread the word about the program.

He is hoping to receive charitable status this year.

“It needs to grow,” he said. “Taking care of people’s feet — it’s simple.”

And then, never one to mince words, he adds: “It’s people’s human right to have warm feet for God’s sake.”

Socks for Change

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Donations can also be made at various retailers across Niagara. See the website for details.

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