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Former Claremonter reaches out to women in need

Maliha Naomani is nothing if not a whirlwind.

Within the past year she’s served as California Assembly Delegate to the 41st District, was co-chair of the California Democratic Party’s finance committee, organized Claremont’s version of the June 30 nationwide “Families Belong Together” rally and protests, and last month accepted a position as a political organizer at the state’s largest labor organization, Service Employees International Union, representing Contra Costa County.

And if you’re wondering how her plate could possibly be more full, she recently became the local coordinator for the new Los Angeles chapter of the Shoebox Project, which each holiday season collects and distributes gift-filled shoeboxes to women impacted by homelessness.

Founded in Canada in 2011 by sisters-in-law Caroline Mulroney Lapham (the daughter of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney), Jessica Mulroney, Katy Mulroney and Vanessa Mulroney, The Shoebox Project has since distributed more than 130,000 shoeboxes to women in need.

Each decorated box is filled with items designed to enhance self-esteem and reduce feelings of isolation for women in need. They contain gift cards, skin care products, good quality soaps and shampoos, makeup, chocolates and warm socks, among other items, and a personal message of support from the donor.

This year’s drive began last month, and ends Monday, December 10. The shoeboxes will be distributed December 15. To learn about how to donate to the LA chapter, which has a drop-off location in Claremont at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, 830 W. Bonita Ave., go to shoeboxprojectusa.org/los-angeles.html.

Ms. Naomani, 42, grew up in Claremont, attending Condit Elementary, El Roble Intermediate, and graduating from Claremont High School in 1994. She became involved with the charity while visiting family near Toronto, where the Shoebox Project is headquartered.

“I was incredibly moved by what they did,” she said. “They just made sense to me with what’s going on with the #MeToo movement, and with homeless women on the streets of Los Angeles and elsewhere being sexually assaulted and abused. I feel like this is a support group, saying ‘You’re not forgotten. We’re here for you. We love you. You’re beautiful. We want you to feel confident about yourself,’ because every person should, right?”

The project fills a need that isn’t being met by other homeless charities, Ms. Naomani said. “People say, ‘Oh, but it’s just mascara,’ or, ‘It’s just shampoo,’ because we’re so used to getting these items. But for these women and these girls, it’s not so simple; They don’t have the funds to do that.”

“The whole message is, let’s really try to help these women feel confident and get back on their feet,” she said. “So many times when you go into a job interview and you’re someone like me, who has the right shoes, clothes and makeup—simple things that we take for granted—these women and girls don’t have. We wanted something that would make them feel more confident so they could go out and seek a job and say, ‘You know what? I’m just like the other girls.’”

The charity started small, in Toronto and Montreal, but now how outposts throughout Canada, in New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Las Vegas, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Atlanta and now LA.

The specificity of the Shoebox Project—focusing on women in need—is unique among other homeless advocacy groups.

“We operate under the basic principle that all people are deserving of basic human rights: shelter, safety, dignity and respect,” the charity’s website reads. “However, as an organization, we have committed to addressing the unique challenges faced by women and girls.”

Ms. Naomani will focus her seemingly boundless energy back on her new day job as a political organizer for SEIU after Monday. Until then though, she’s hard at work trying to get the LA chapter of the Shoebox Project stocked with donations. She said in an earlier interview that she “wears her heart on her sleeve,” a fact that is readily apparent when she’s talking about helping homeless women.

“Especially during the holiday season, we want to make sure they that they have someone,” she said.

You can learn more about the Shoebox Project at shoeboxprojectusa.org.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com