The energy level at the Head Start in Hannibal was higher than normal Wednesday morning. The children were having trouble containing their excitement because of what they knew they would be receiving – brand new shoes.
“They love visitors anyway and then visitors bringing them new shoes, they’re just going to be over the top, especially some of my little girls. All little girls love shoes,” said Kathy Newlon, center manager for the Douglass Community Services’ Head Start program in Hannibal.
The shoes were being provided by Shoes From the Heart, an organization launched just two years ago by Donnie and Cindy Bonuchi of Macon.
“My wife and I had prayed about it for a long time. We didn’t know what we were going to do,” recalled Donnie Bonuchi. “One day we were down at University Hospital in Columbia. We were sitting there and in walked a family. They had four children and every single child had torn-up shoes with duct tape on them. My wife goes, ‘Look. If that ain’t a sign, what is?’”
Backed by the support of two Sunday school classes, the Bonuchies started out by supplying 65 pairs of shoes to Macon County Head Start. By the end of 2012 Shoes From the Heart had distributed over 500 pairs of shoes in Macon County.
Last year the ministry mission expanded into seven counties, including Shelby, Ralls and Marion counties. By Dec. 31, 2013, over 1,100 pairs of shoes had been given away.
“We just continue to grow,” said Donnie Bonuchi, adding he has been in contact with officials in Monroe County.
Among those delighted that the program has reached Marion County is Newlon.
“It’s almost too good to be true,” she said. “The (Head Start) center manager (in Macon) talked about it (Shoes From the Heart) at one of our meetings and I was just so impressed, I thought, ‘Wow, I would really love for that to come to us,’ so when he (Bonuchi) called I was so excited that we were going to be able to do that for our kids because there is a genuine need.
“Most of our families that we serve are lower income and they might not be able to afford shoes for them at the right time because at this age children grow so quickly and trying to replace those shoes… This is a program that will help them with that. Once they provide this pair, if the kiddo outgrows it in a month, I can contact Donnie and say, ‘Hey, I need another pair of shoes,’ and he’s going to be on that for me.”
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Lots of shoes
On Wednesday, 100 pairs of shoes were distributed in Hannibal.
“We have an enrollment of 102 counting our home-based program, so when Donnie contacted me I was so surprised they were going to be able to service all of our children because that’s a lot of kids,” said Newlon.
Funds used to purchase the shoes distributed Wednesday were raised locally.
“The unique thing about what we do is all the money that is raised stays local. All the money that’s raised here in Hannibal goes to kids in Hannibal,” said Bonuchi. “That’s the reason for these shoes today, not because of people from Macon on any other town, it’s because of Hannibal. They’re taking care of their own community.”
Newlon hopes that the program catches on locally.
“I hope that this gets out into the community and the community gets on board and recognizes that. Maybe can expand into the public schools and other day cares, wherever the need is,” she said.
Handing out new shoes is something that never grows old for Bonuchi.
“For some of these kids this is the first pair of new shoes they’ve ever had in their life,” he said. “They’re excited. They’ll say, ‘Look how fast I can run and how high I can jump.’ Just seeing their faces is really a blessing.”
That “blessing” is frequently shared.
“We have hundreds of volunteers,” said Bonuchi, noting that helpers from Hannibal-LaGrange University were on hand Wednesday. “We have some students coming out to help us fit the shoes. They’re excited to be here. It’s really a blessing to have that kind of backing here in Hannibal.”
Among the HLGU students on hand Wednesday was Johanna Goodman, a senior from Houston, Texas.
“It’s been really, really fun. They’re just so energetic and happy. I can tell they’re excited about getting a new pair of shoes. I love getting to work with kids and making them happy,” she said.
Goodman admitted the experience was enlightening.
“Until I heard about this ministry I didn’t even realize that there were children in America that might not have shoes,” she said. “I’ve heard of other organizations that provide shoes for children around the world, but not necessarily for kids here in the town we live in. I think it’s really cool to be able to do something local to help out the kids that are around us all the time.”
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