NAPLES DAILY NEWS – MARCH 10, 2017
Upon entering Jeanne Nealon’s North Naples home, guests may think they’ve entered a shoe warehouse. Designer sneakers like Nike and Sperry form a rainbow-colored mountain on her dining room table, and they inhabit tight closet spaces.
“Come here for a second,” Nealon, 58, said enthusiastically as she walked down the hall and out the door.
More shoes were organized in large bins inside the garage.
But the shoes aren’t for sale.
They are gifts to children in need from Collier and Lee counties.
The former Lee County teacher saw a need to provide children new shoes after taking home one of her students years ago in the 1980s.
“I took home a student I didn’t realize was living in a migrant camp, and a lot of those children were sharing shoes and it broke my heart. They were the worst shoes I’d ever seen. The soles were coming off the bottom, just torn and ripped and didn’t fit them,” said Nealon inside her dining room.
So she started hosting free garage sales offering up clothes and shoes out of the back of her Chevrolet Chevette.
A “thank you” note from a Laces of Love recipient. Every year, the local nonprofit donates new shoes to children in need in Collier and Lee counties. (Photo: Jamie Stoddard/Staff)
“People thought I was crazy,” she said.
But many families in need took the opportunity gladly.
As if being a mom, wife, teacher and philanthropist wasn’t enough, Nealon also gave motivational speeches to teachers and local organizations. In one of the meetings, she met Susy Warren, a fellow educator.
Warren helped Nealon take her garage sales a step further, and form a nonprofit in 2005, which would eventually be called Laces of Love.
“I didn’t know the steps to take to become a nonprofit, so she steps in and all of a sudden bam! we are on the map,” Nealon said.
Warren helped start nonprofits in Buffalo, New York. She said the response from the community with Laces of Love was unlike anything else she’d seen before.
Shadowlawn Elementary second graders Patti Delashmet and Jasmine Thomas hug it out after receiving new sneakers from nonprofit Laces of Love. Every year, the nonprofit donates new shoes to children in need in Collier and Lee counties. (Photo: Jamie Stoddard/Staff)
“From the beginning, other organizations, golf communities and churches would have shoe drives for us, and individuals would have dinner parties where they would collect shoes. Suddenly we would have 12 pairs of sneakers that meant 12 kids were going to get new shoes,” Warren said.
With the help of Warren and her sister Mary Myrmo, Nealon gave out 28 pairs of sneakers that first year. Every year, the number doubled, and reached an all-time high in 2016 with more than 10,000 pairs. Since the very beginning, the nonprofit has given new pairs of shoes to more than 100,000 elementary, middle and high school students in Collier and Lee counties.
Nealon knew they were on to something early on when she went to give a motivational speech to a local Boy Scout troop.
“When I walked in, I thought I was getting one pair of shoes as a payment for my speech. And all 15 boys had a pair of shoes. Of course, I started crying,” Nealon said.
The nonprofit works with local organizations such as St. Matthew’s House, the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee, and Grace Place for Children and Families. One of their biggest sponsors is Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale and his family.
Most of the shoes benefit the Collier and Lee school districts. Nealon said they also collect cleats for their athletic teams.
The “thank you” cards they receive from the children make it all worth it.
“They’ve never had something new, so they treasure it so much,” Warren said.
This past Tuesday, Warren and Nealon prepared for a delivery to Shadowlawn Elementary in East Naples, a Title I school. They both wore pink T-shirts with their nonprofit’s logo; a pair of sneakers shaped in the form of a heart.
Nealon grabbed a large bag of sneakers and wheeled it out to her car in a large bucket. She was delivering the shoes solo this time.
When she arrived to the school, the front office staff greeted her like an old friend.
Laces of Love co-founder Jeanne Nealon poses with Shadowlawn Elementary School second graders Patti Delashmet and Jasmine Thomas after giving them new sneakers on March 8, 2017, at the school’s front office. Every year, the nonprofit collects and delivers new shoes to children in need in Collier and Lee counties. (Photo: Jamie Stoddard/Staff)
“I’ve known her for years,” said Shadowlawn Principal Oliver Phipps.
Nealon rarely gets a chance to meet the kids she’s helping. Often, the kids are chosen by the school based on need, and taken discreetly to the nurse’s office to get the new shoes.
But it was her lucky day.
Second-graders Jasmine Thomas and Patti Delashmet walked into the front office and met the “shoe lady.” They took off their old shoes, and sat down excitedly to get their new ones from Nealon herself.
Patti got a pair of glittery sneakers and Jasmine received a navy pair.
“I love it,” Jasmine said as she stood up in her new shoes.
“What does it make you feel?” Nealon asked her.
“It makes me feel like I’m jumping in a bed,” she responded. Everyone in the office laughed.
The school receives about 250 pairs of shoes every year from Laces of Love, said Phipps.
The need is great.
“Ninety percent of our students are on free or reduced lunch,” he added. “So when they get the new shoes they feel better and feel proud. They say, ‘These are my new shoes.'”
Nealon said many people don’t realize that the need exists in Southwest Florida.
“If you don’t go past Fifth Avenue or Third Street South, then you’ll have no idea. If you go to the outskirts of Collier County and Lee County, you see these people running to catch the CAT bus, and going to work on the beach for their second job. These are their children. They’re just trying to pay their bills and put food on the table,” Nealon said.
Growing up in a family of eight, Nealon said she always had a new pair of shoes.
Those shoes gave her comfort, and let her concentrate on her studies at school.
“If we all put on each other’s shoes, it’s fun for a second, walking around in your mom’s high heels, but you’re not going to wear that to school. They’re uncomfortable,” Nealon added.
After turning in all the shoes to Shadowlawn, Nealon walked to her car, and couldn’t wait until the next time she can do it again.