The Giving That Keeps Going
Creating Rainbow Sandals, Inc. was Jay “Sparky” Longley’s first great act of altruism. He began making the sandals in a garage in Laguna back in the early ’70s, out of what he saw as a necessity for a sturdy and environmentally conscious sandal for surfers like himself. He didn’t want to continue seeing the beaches lined with broken sandals or landfills brimming with sandals that could’ve had a longer life.
“I figured…I’m gonna make something that lasts,” Sparky recalls.
These days he receives letters from people who have had their sandals for 30-40 years, some having traversed much of the world in them.
The first Rainbows—before they were known by that name— were sold at the Sawdust Festival in 1974, where Sparky set up shop in the parking lot. At the time he was making about 20 pairs of sandals per day. Popularity ensued, and soon the festival’s administrators were kicking him out due to the attention he was diverting from them. That pushed him south, to San Clemente, where he was able to rent property and hire a small staff to help make the sandals. Within that first year, Sparky convinced Dick Metz at Hobie Surf Shop in Dana Point to sell his sandals on consignment. Dick thought they looked ridiculous, but went out on what he thought was a limb anyway.
“They were ugly,” Sparky remembers, chuckling at the memory, “but I swear people would buy them.”
Word spread of comfort and durability, and by ’75 the first Rainbow Sandals retail store was cranking out about 50 pairs per day in San Clemente. Now, they sell to 8,000 retailers and produce millions of shoes per year.
To this day, Sparky is diligent about keeping Rainbow Sandals as low-impact as possible. He says he tries to figure out what to do with all the waste Rainbow uses, and that it’s kind of a fun thing to figure out. He’s spent a great deal of his life outside, surfing and skiing, making it evident that he’s motivated by a deep appreciation for nature. He believes that if everybody made a reusable product then there would be no dump. And If there was no dump, there would be less pollution. The effort to create a less polluted world often works in conjunction with his philanthropy, which has remained truly epic under the guise of Herman Brown, a beloved friend of Sparky’s.
The pair met seven years ago at a charity event for marines.
“Somebody said you’ve gotta meet this Herman guy. All he does all day is feed homeless people and put people in shelters that need it,” Sparky remembers.
A while back in his life, Herman said to himself: “Okay God, there has to be more to life than this.” Since then, he has been a constant example of a good samaritan—the kind that spends more of his waking hours giving to others than to himself. Sparky praised Herman repeatedly by acknowledging how he serves others all day, every day, seven days a week. It’s true that Herman goes out daily and gives whatever he can to charities, shelters, etc. in Southern California. He hands out Rainbows, food, and other essentials on Skid Row and in other areas densely populated with groups in need of aid.
In an effort to further boast about his friend, Sparky says, “I’m just the sandal guy…I help out where I can.”
He does give sandals wherever it’s deemed necessary, but it’s clear that the work Sparky does is beyond sandal-giving. Recently, they’ve done a lot to contribute to hurricane relief in Houston and Puerto Rico. They were able to get a 40-foot refrigerated truck (donated with a driver included, by Sysco) filled with thousands of pounds of lemons, boxes of cereal, juice, and other food items. They’ve also been sending sandals to Puerto Rico in waves of hundreds of sandals per shipment, with the intention of sending more.
Some might look at the success of Rainbow Sandals and assume that they can’t possibly help people in the ways that a lucrative retail business can. However, Sparky and his friends, family, and staff aren’t just throwing money at these issues; they’re tackling them with their own hands on their own time, because it’s the right thing to do.
“We also do this so other people know they can make a difference,” Herman says of the day-to-day work.
That’s one of the reasons why Rainbow lets people bring their sandals back, in exchange for 10% off their next pair. Customers can bring in their worn-out sandals called “seconds”. Rainbow then washes and sanitizes them of any harmful bacteria, before sending them around the world to charitable NGOs and communities in need. Sparky recognizes this is not the answer to the problem, but he believes it helps. However slight, a difference is being made in the lives of the people they’re helping, and for them, that’s one of the most important aspects of it all.
Herman’s behavior has helped set a standard of giving for Sparky, who now volunteers at countless charities that Herman introduced him to. This includes Showers of Blessings, Orange County Rescue, Village of Hope, and Mary’s Kitchen— a place they couldn’t stop finding good words for—which provides meals, hygienic care, and more to hundreds of people per day in Orange, CA. Collecting newly repaired freezers, washing dishes, cooking, donating soap —this activity by Sparky, his wife Chanya, Herman, and anyone else volunteering at Mary’s Kitchen and other charities, is the stuff of altruism. It’s behavior that deserves a spotlight, so that anyone who isn’t sure what to do with all of the theft of security and joy in the world, can see that around every corner exists an opportunity to give a bit of it back.