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The Collegiate Sock Fairy Who Warms the Feet of New York’s Homeless

Adina Lichtman started Knock Knock Give a Sock out of her college dorm two years ago. Now, her organization has given out over 50,000 pairs of socks to homeless men and women around the U.S.

Tova Cohen
September 08, 2016
Aliza Fox
Adina Lichtman, Founder of Knock Knock Give a Sock, interacts with a homeless man in New York City. Aliza Fox
Aliza Fox
Adina Lichtman, Founder of Knock Knock Give a Sock, interacts with a homeless man in New York City. Aliza Fox

Adina Lichtman was doling out sandwiches to the homeless near her New York University dorm when one of the neighborhood regulars politely told her that what the homeless really need is socks. In colder months, he explained, homeless men and women could wear up to five pairs in a bid to keep warm.

This interaction was a revelation for Lichtman, a sophomore at the time. “I raced back to my dorm but my own sock drawer had few good options,” she recalled. “I knocked on a few doors in my building and asked people to donate. By the next morning, I had 60 pairs to give out.”

That initial, simple act of generosity, which took place around Thanksgiving in 2014, soon grew into a campus-wide initiative called Knock Knock Give a Sock, where students pledge to knock on a certain number of doors to collect socks for Lichtman, who would then distribute them to homeless people near NYU. Word spread on social media like wildfire, and soon enough, students from other local colleges, like Columbia and Cooper Union, and then elsewhere (Emory, UC Berkeley, and Johns Hopkins), signed on as college ambassadors. Within a year, over 60 college campuses, high schools, seminaries, and Yeshivas (including some in Israel) were participating. Corporations like Toyota and JP Morgan were not far behind, holding inter-office sock drives for the cause.

But Lichtman, who, at 23, is one year shy of completing her combined BA/Master’s in social work, wasn’t content. “The slogan of Knock Knock is ‘meet your neighbors while meeting the needs of others,’” she explained. “I wanted to do more so that students and the homeless could interact on a deeper level, [so] I decided to organize sit-down dinners, because when you get to know one another over a shared meal, any lingering stigmas disappear.”

The first dinner, hosted by the NYU Silver School of Social Work in November 2016, attracted 100 students and homeless shelter residents; the second, hosted by a campus-based Jewish group called JLIC at a local shul, drew even more. The first corporate-hosted dinner is scheduled for September 28 at the law firm Alston & Bird.

“After the first dinner, someone approached me and said he couldn’t even tell exactly who was a student and who was a homeless individual,” said Lichtman. “I count that as a success.”

Knock Knock Give a Sock runs mostly on the generosity of college ambassadors and several sock companies and distributors, some who donate thousands of pairs at a time for the cause. Lichtman’s older sister is an attorney whose firm worked pro bono to take the campus group to official non-profit status.

Mark Rabiner, a community doctor who treats many homeless people, met Lichtman through their mutual work a year ago. “To see the work of one individual pull together thousands of pairs of socks for the homeless in such a short amount of time is both energizing and humbling,” he said. “I am personally driven to re-explore how we can do better for those who are less fortunate than us.”

Lichtman , too, remains motivated by consistently seeing the impact she is making on those she seeks to help. “I am called ‘the sock fairy’ by my friends who live on the street, including Diego, that man who first told me about the need for socks,” she said. “I am able to tell Diego and others how many socks we’ve collected so far, and it’s amazing to see their reaction. It helps keep me going.” That her offers of socks to individuals on the street and in large donations to shelters have not once been rejected is proof enough, too, that her work is vital to the homeless community.

As for why she thinks donated socks struck such a chord in the hearts and sock drawers of so many donors—over 50,000 pairs of socks have been collected and given to those in need—Adina points to the simplicity of her organization’s mission. “I believe that most people want to do good,” she said. “It’s just hard to find the time and money. Knock Knock Give a Sock doesn’t require much of either.”

Tova Cohen is a fundraising communications professional and freelance writer. She lives with her family in New Jersey.