WHITTIER — When Army National Guard Sgt. Gilbert Zepeda of Whittier mentioned to a friend that he wanted to get some shoes for Iraqi children, he never imagined his plea would garner a national response. On a daily basis, Zepeda — who is serving in Iraq — had observed children playing and running barefoot over the rocky, trash-covered streets and surrounding fields of Baghdad. After watching a 2-year-old girl struggling on tiptoe to keep up with her mother one day, Zepeda took a photo of her and e-mailed it to his friends and family. “That was the last straw,” said Zepeda, who is home in Whittier on a two-week leave. “I had been watching all these kids with no shoes running around on the hot asphalt in 140-degree heat. People open their front doors and dump their trash out front. There’s no system to take it away, so there’s trash all over the place and a rough terrain. I just started wondering, what’s being done for the children?” AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREThe top 10 theme park moments of 2019 Zepeda is serving on a reconnaissance team for Delta Company 1-184 Infantry of the Army National Guard. His team also performs some humanitarian-based missions such as checking on people’s electricity service and food and water supplies and bringing toys and candy to the children. Now Zepeda’s fellow soldiers call him “Sgt. Zapatos” — “Sgt. Shoes” in Spanish — and children shout, “Shoes, you shoes!” when they see him. With his tent-mate’s encouragement, Zepeda, 35, sent an e-mail appeal to family and friends, asking if anyone would donate some shoes. The response was so huge, he gave his plan a name — “Soles for Souls.” “I just sent out that request and pretty soon I was receiving three boxes of shoes a day,” Zepeda said. “It was an overwhelming response. Shoes were coming from 25 states, and some big companies were helping too.” Once Anne Galvan, founder of 4theTroops, heard of Zepeda’s efforts, she was able to quickly spread the word through her Internet-based nonprofit group. Her organization helps people send care packages, letters and e-mails to individual soldiers serving overseas. “So far Gilbert’s collected over 3,500 shoes,” Galvan said. “What touched me about Gilbert is he loves seeing the kids smile and laugh. He’s got such a big heart. People think soldiers are such tough guys, but he’s a humanitarian.” Both of Zepeda’s parents died of cancer when he was 16, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother. She provided him with such unconditional love that everything he does, he does with her in mind, he said. “When I saw that the shoe project was working, I started dreaming about what else I could do,” Zepeda said. “It’s become so important to me that at times I stay up all night writing down my ideas in the e-mail memos. People ask me why. Well, what if I don’t come back? If I don’t type it up, no one will ever know my thoughts and dreams.” Pam Wight can be reached at (562) 698-0955, Ext. 3029, or by e-mail at [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!