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Mall shoe stores play host to pair of charitable events

MANATEE — Organizers hope a pair of charitable endeavors will get the holiday giving season off on the right foot during events today at DeSoto Square mall shoe stores.

Thirty-six pupils from Palmetto’s James Tillman Elementary Magnet School will descend upon the Payless ShoeSource at about 10 a.m. today for a free pair of shoes of their choice, courtesy of the Beta Sigma Phi sorority’s Preceptor Omicron chapter and the Manatee County school district’s Project Heart.

Across the mall, Rack Room Shoes will celebrate its 89th anniversary at 2 p.m. today by sending Bradenton resident Donna Bonanno on a shoe-shopping spree that also will benefit Meals on Wheels PLUS of Manatee.

The Tillman children, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade, will visit Payless for the 16th consecutive year, said Kathy Powell, the school district’s social educator who has been involved with the program since its inception.

She said it’s a special time for the kids, who also will be treated to a meal at the McDonald’s in the mall food court and get their pictures taken with Santa Claus.

“Once we started doing it, we never stopped,” said Maria Eurice, the project coordinator with the Preceptor Omicron chapter. “Once they’re here and get back on the bus, it warms my heart. It gives us such a thrill to do this.”

The Preceptor Omicron chapter will fund 30 pairs of shoes and the McDonald’s meals, while Project Heart, the school district’s program to help homeless children and families, will pick up the cost of six pairs, Powell said.

Bonanno, 58, entered the Rack Room’s “89-Second Shopping Spree” drawing while shopping at the store in early October, just before she was laid off from her job as a server at Red Lobster.

She is taking classes at Manatee Technical Institute to become a hemodialysis technician, but says the shopping spree will allow her to get gifts for her daughter and mother that she may not otherwise have been able to afford.

“I was so surprised,” Bonanno said. “I didn’t even remember entering the contest. I always say everything happens for a reason. I really needed this after losing my job.”

Bonanno will have 89 seconds to collect as many pairs of shoes as she can. She will get to keep her bounty, and Meals on Wheels PLUS will receive a donation equal to the monetary value of the shoes.

Bonanno will have some help in her quest. Kristen Theisen, the chief development officer at Meals on Wheels PLUS, will be permitted to hold shoes while Bonanno goes back for more.

Meals on Wheels PLUS, which operates the Food Bank of Manatee, appreciates the Rack Room donation. Bonanno chose the charity because she did some volunteer work for it in the past.

“Nonprofits depend so much on the generosity of others to help people less fortunate, and the holidays are especially hard,” said Ellen Campbell, president and CEO of Meals on Wheels PLUS. “This is just one of the many unique ways we receive help, and we are so grateful.”