Shoe Service Institute Supports Peter Bug’s Program at Spingarn High

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells watches as Peter "Bug" Mathews thanks The Shoe Service Institute of America for its donation of $10,000 in new equipment.

Spingarn High School in Northeast DC has received $10,000 in new equipment, and $5,000 in supplies  from the Shoe Service Institute of America (SSIA) to help John “Peter Bug” Matthews retain and expand his shoe repair program.  The presentation occurred at a ceremony at the school on October 16.

SSIA president Don Rinaldi said the group “considers this an investment in our future because one of our main challenges is the shortage of training programs to bring young people into our industry.”

Matthews, teacher and proprietor of Peter Bug’s Shoe Repair Academy in southeast DC, said this donation is a commitment to gainful employment for young people. “Grown folks need to start believing  in kids, and this wonderful contribution demonstrates that faith,” he said. 

Matthews has helped students develop marketable skills since 1977.  His program produces “leather technicians” capable of handling all types of products.  His students learn entrepreneurship.  Each one must open his own shop in the school and an account in the school bank.  The purpose is to make a profit.  Matthews calls this “the new hustle.” Last year, 10 of his students found employment in the industry.

The ceremony culminated a lengthy process that began when school opened.  After learning that the shoe repair program budget for supplies was just $100, Matthews got creative.  The stakes were not just his program, but the future of Career Technical Education, formerly known as vocational education, in DC public schools.

“Training in the blue collar trades is being phased out through budget squeezes that amount to ‘systematic occupational genocide,’” he explained.  While the schools have academic counselors, there are no technical counselors.  “What the administrators fail to recognize is that this program can be self-sufficient.  There are 10,000 women in DC public schools who need shoes and handbags repaired, not to mention the potential for fixing zippers in athletic bags. We could handle the repairs for the maintenance staff and ROTC,” he said.  He also noted that there are few shoe repair shops in DC Wards 5, 7,and 8.

Undaunted, Matthews turned to Spingarn principal Gary Washington, who arranged for a $250 donation from the alumni association.  To purchase supplies, Matthews then approached Joe Stern, the grandson of his former employer, who now operates the Cobblers Bench shoe repair shops.  Mr. Stern not only doubled the order and provided machinery, but also asked Mr. Matthews to find two students whom he could employ. 

Later, at the annual National Shoe Industry Convention in Chicago, Mr. Stern reported on Peter Bug’s  program, capturing the attention of the Shoe Repair Industry Association (SSIA). The SSIA is a 108-year-old trade association.  Its members are shoe repair shops, manufacturers and importers of shoe repair and shoe care products and machinery and their wholesale-distributor trading partners.

 The program has become a farm club. One member from Delaware already asked Matthews to find several students to be hired.

DC Mayor Vincent Gray, Council Member Tommy Wells, and Education Chancellor Kaya Henderson attended the ceremony.

Matthews’ nickname derived from an old VW Beetle he drove years ago.  A community activist, he has worked with the children in Potomac Gardens, coached a football team for disadvantaged kids, and received the Capitol Hill Community Achievement Award from the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. The 400 block of 13th St. SE was named Peter Bug Way in 2010 in recognition of his community service.  

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