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Outgoing director leaves ‘Shoes’ in good hands

After more than a decade at the helm of the Claremont-based nonprofit Shoes That Fit, distributing countless pairs of shoes to children in need, longtime executive director Roni Lomeli is set to retire this January.

“My retirement is bittersweet,” Ms. Lomeli said. “Shoes That Fit has been an important part of my life for the past 18 years.”

Ms. Lomeli has brought the local service organization a long way in her nearly two decades of service, working her way from volunteer to board member to executive director beginning in 2001. Her work has been applauded by the local community and across the country. She was recently named one of Town and Country magazine’s distinguished “Women Who Make a Difference” for her strides in helping children across the United States.

“Roni has been the award-winning leader and driving force behind Shoes That Fit’s extraordinary success,” said Ralph Shapira, board member-at-large and former chair. “Her inspired leadership has transformed Shoes That Fit from a superb local service organization into a highly efficient national charity. She leaves Shoes That Fit in an excellent position to expand its helping reach to countless additional schoolchildren still in need.”

She began as a volunteer in 1994, stuffing envelopes in a closet-sized office off Harvard Avenue, where the organization managed efforts to provide footwear to children of Arroyo Elementary School in Pomona. Today, Ms. Lomeli leaves behind a legacy that includes distribution of more than one million pairs of shoes to children in 1,600 schools in 42 states across the country.

Though retirement will afford her the opportunity to travel with her husband, Martin Lomeli, and help with the success of other local charities, the nonprofit’s longtime leading lady knows she will find it impossible not to give back to Shoes That Fit in some capacity.

“[The organization] grows on you, it gets in your blood,” Ms. Lomeli said. “The more you work with the program and see what it does for the kids, the more you want to do it.”

Part of her mission has been to help others feel that same itch. Taking a look at the numbers, it’s clear she succeeded. Without any government funding and starting with only six employees, the organization now boasts a network of more than 300 sponsor organizations. Ninety percent of all their donations go directly to the children the charity serves, which prompted Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog organization, to confer its highest 4-star rating on Shoes That Fit in November 2012. It was the third consecutive year they received the accolade.

Along with Shoes That Fit’s growing sponsorships, their services have also expanded, from focusing exclusively on shoes to encompassing socks and school supplies. The nonprofit’s recent Backpack Campaign yielded about 250 backpacks stuffed with back to school goodies for children in the Claremont, Upland, Montclair, Ontario and Fontana school districts. In return, Ms. Lomeli has received thousands of thank you letters on behalf of the organization, each child’s story and gratitude warming her heart more than the next. She insists the crayon-colored sentiments are the most satisfying part of her job.

“When these kids tell you what these shoes meant to them, that’s what makes it all worthwhile,” Ms. Lomeli said. “You know it is making a difference in their lives.”

And they in hers, which is part of the reason it has taken her a couple years to finally come to her decision to retire. Easing her departure is the fact that she will be passing on the torch to longtime donor Amy Fass, who has also served as the organization’s director of corporate giving for the past several years.

“She knows our organization and has a passion for what we do,” Ms. Lomeli said. “It’s really going to be a smooth transition for us.”

Ms. Fass understands she has big shoes to fill but, with Ms. Lomeli’s confidence, is ready to help Shoes That Fit continue its climb.  

“We are in expansion mode,” she said. “I hope I can continue that.”

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com