Most high school students kick off their shoes and laze poolside during the summer. But not these six Georgia teens – they celebrated the break by volunteering to improve their community.
Daniel and Brendan Mahoney, Oliver Howell, Megan Slatkovsky, Lily Kate Conneff and Ashley Ambos, ranging from ages 14 to 18, came together from across their Savannah, Georgia, community to pioneer a project that has purchased more than 3,200 pairs of shower shoes for the city’s homeless population.
It all started because Mahoney wanted to do some type of volunteer work during the break.
“I knew I wanted to do something to give back to the community,” rising senior Mahoney, 18, who spearheaded the aptly named Flip Flop Drop, tells PEOPLE.
He admits he had no idea how that quest would turn out.
“Honestly, flip flops would have been the last thing to cross my mind,” he says.
However, after checking around, Mahoney was put in contact with the Inner City Night Shelter, a homeless housing facility with one large need: shower shoes.
“As simple as it is, it’s just not in the budget,” says ICNS Executive Director Yvonne Pryor. “You don’t want to just go behind anyone with your bare feet – you’ll get athlete’s foot.”
Brian Heckman, 55, a homeless resident of that shelter, agrees.
“Every night, you have individuals after individuals taking a shower, and some of them come in really nasty,” he tells PEOPLE. “Walking in there barefoot is kind of a little disgusting.”
So he was grateful for the kids’ help.
“To know that there are kids taking care of us – it meant a lot to me,” he says, “showing that there is someone out there that cares for you.”
During the summer months, the ICNS and the nearby Social Apostolate, which offers food and showers to the homeless, average 112 showers a day for men, women and children who live in area shelters and camp out in the wilderness.
Mahoney teamed up with his younger brother Brendan and four other motivated students to begin the two-week drive with the original goal of $1,000 for 1,000 pairs of flip flops.
After broadcasting their cause on the local news and doing widespread fundraising, the small group of leaders received an overwhelming community response, beating their goal by $2,000.
“One dollar is one pair of flip flops,” Lily Kate Conneff, 15, tells PEOPLE, “and that’s one shower, so it just makes you want to do more and more.”
The flip flops themselves weren’t the only things that generated excitement from the homeless community – it was also the assortment of color and size, and the option to choose their own preference.
“It was the talk for at least a good week, week and a half about these shower shoes,” says Heckman. “Everybody had a smile on their face and if they didn’t like the color, [they were] able to come up and get the color that they did like, and that made them really happy.”
Some are even wearing them as everyday shoes, he says.
“When you have something that you’re satisfied and proud of,” he says, “you can show it and walk around with pride back in your heart again.”
The students were so successful, the shelter was even able to partner with America’s Second Harvest’s Kid’s Caf , a summer program that feeds underprivileged children in the community, to put summer shoes on children who can’t afford them.
“It went far beyond the shower shoes,” Pryor tells PEOPLE. “They’re putting shoes on the feet of the community.”
Mahoney and the Flip Flop Drop gang hope to continue their community leadership by holding the drive again next year and partnering with the ICNS for fundraising projects, like an upcoming 5K.
They’ve even discussed doing a similar drive for jeans, another shelter need, in the fall.
“The earlier you start, it’ll just keep increasing exponentially,” says Mahoney. “You never really think of it, but it’s really surprising how much we can make a difference.”
More Heroes Among Us:
Know a hero? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine