Holly Wastler-Miller and Ron Miller knew the odds were not good as they drove to the Potter County hospital where their 12-year-old son, Ian, had been taken after a sledding accident.
"We walked through the ER doors, and one look at their faces and we knew," Miller said. Ian was dead.
The Pottstown couple was still with their son when the coroner came in to show them what doctors had found tucked into Ian's snow boot.
It was a Bible passage.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:2-4.
"We were so shocked at that point," Wastler-Miller said. "Then there was this little ray of amazement as we took a look at that little piece of paper."
The paper had been given to Ian at a bible camp. Once before, Wastler-Miller had seen her son hide a verse in his shoe. "It makes me happy," he told his mother.
But they saw the message that tragic day in January 2010 as part of God's plan.
From it sprouted In Ian's Boots, an all-volunteer charity founded in memory of their son. Since forming it three years ago, they have distributed 30,000 new and gently used shoes, winter boots, and soccer cleats to those in need.
The charity operates out of a 4,000-square-foot warehouse in Pottstown. On Monday and Tuesday nights, it opens to local residents. And its shoes have also been donated to orphanages in China and Guatemala and organizations in Uganda, Mexico, Honduras, Latvia, Haiti, and Moldova.
"We often work through organizations . . . to make sure shoes get on the feet of people who need them," Miller, 59, said.
He and his wife, a former marketing executive, hadn't planned to have children. After 15 years of marriage - and what she thought was a bout of flu-like symptoms - Wastler-Miller realized that at 39 she was pregnant.
Their perfect balance of careers, travel, church, and social events gave way to chaos that included soccer, scouts, homework, and a kitten named Abby.
Their son "came into our lives and totally filled it with joy," Wastler-Miller, 55, said.
Ian was a frenetic child, his mother said. A seventh grader at West-Mont Christian Academy in Pottstown, he liked to cook, travel, go to movies, scuba dive, play video games, and was active at his church, the Church of the Saviour in Wayne.
In late 2009, he had been accepted as a goalkeeper for the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, which helps train talented players.
On Jan. 16, 2010, Ian went off with the scouts while his parents visited relatives in Harrisburg.
Then came the call that Ian had suffered a traumatic brain injury when he slid into a ski lift tower.
Shortly after his death, Ian's soccer teammates asked about doing something in his memory. The couple first thought about setting up a scholarship, then had an inspiration.
"It occurred to us that - duh - the message to persevere was in Ian's boots," Wastler-Miller said. "We could give away shoes and boots."
They have helped the humanitarian organization Central American Relief Efforts sponsor a soccer tournament for about 120 school-age children in the impoverished village of Pespire, Honduras. About 300 pairs of shoes, as well as T-shirts and shorts - and lunch - for the players were donated.
"For these kids, this is Christmas in July," said Andy Appel, the volunteer executive director of the Lancaster charity. "What we are finding is a pair of soccer cleats is their only shoe."
Appel said he tells Ian's story before the start of the tournament and the players take it to heart. "Here are kids who are the same age Ian was when he passed away and they appreciate what is being done," he said.
Closer to home, the charity helped Hurricane Sandy victims, the Kensington Soccer Club, homeless groups, the Salvation Army, and worked with the Andrew L. Hicks Jr. Foundation to distribute shoes in Chester.
"Having donations from In Ian's Boots has been a real blessing for us," said Dan Hardy, a Kensington Soccer Club board member and former Inquirer reporter. The club has more than 100 players from ages three to 19 - many from families who can't afford cleats.
At the warehouse, stacks of large cardboard boxes filled with shoes are labeled with donors' names - Westtown School, Evansburg UMC, and Aiden's Birthday. Women's orange pumps, Scooby-Doo slippers, Uggs, sneakers, and soccer cleats poke out of open containers.
Volunteers help sort, clean, and tag each donation. A copy of the bible verse found in Ian's boot is included with each pair.
"Hiking boots and work boots are like gold to the homeless," said Miller, an information-technology consultant. For donations to warmer or damp climates, flip-flops and Crocs are the preferred choice, he said.
Miller's eyes sparkle when he looks around at the organized jumble of boxes and bags. He is quick to point out the two washing machines, the shoe dryer, and the second-hand sofa that doubles as the "executive lounge." His wish list includes commercial shelves and a forklift. And - oh, yeah - more men's shoes. Never enough of those, he said.
The holidays have been especially hard for the couple, Wastler-Miller said. It will be four years next month since Ian died.
Wastler-Miller said Ian had a very giving heart. He took great pleasure in giving to charities such as Toys for Tots - even braving the "pink aisle" to include gifts for girls, she said.
"To know we are giving things away on his behalf, he would think was very cool," she said.
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