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A Jefferson City-based nonprofit has re-imagined itself.

Last week, the organization formerly known as the Dental, Eye and Shoe Program became The Sneaker Project.

The change came about because, over the past few years, the Community Health Center of Central Missouri has provided dental and vision services to children challenged by poverty.

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The program had a partnership with the center — and it "just worked out perfectly" for the children receiving services, said Bev Bisges, president of the board for The Sneaker Project.

"We were really trying to make sure it was the kids who fell through the cracks who were getting served," Bisges said.

Dentists and optometrists in the city were cutting the program a deal to do "whatever it took" to get children the services they needed, she said.

"The health center first checks to see if the patients are eligible for Medicaid, which most likely they are," Bisges said.

As more and more children received care at the center, money the United Way of Central Missouri distributed for them shifted over to the center.

At one time, project Executive Director Lorie Smith said, the annual budget for the program was more than $40,000. It has dropped to about $15,000.

Over the years, about 85 percent of the program's funding has come through United Way contributions, said Ann Bax, United Way of Central Missouri president.

But that's not sustainable.

After her selection as the nonprofit's new director, Smith suggested the organization might work best if sitting board members, typically made up of health care workers who distribute shoes to children through the program, became a committee that could focus on distributions. A number of people were approached and became a new board, Smith said.

"The people that are actually distributing the shoes can focus on doing that," she said, "and making that process as streamlined and efficient as possible."

The organization can now collect data the United Way requires, Smith said. Among data available are striking numbers that show 5,519 children in Jefferson City Public Schools alone qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in the federal program, the demographics the project aims to reach.

The organization also serves the rest of Cole County, as well as Osage, Miller and Moniteau counties. Cole County has 10.9 percent of residents living below the federal poverty line, Miller has 16.3 percent, Osage has 9.2, and Moniteau has 12 percent, according to U.S. Census data.

Board members approved the organization's name and mission change last week. Smith said she has yet to fill out paperwork with the Missouri Secretary of State's Office.

The Sneaker Project's board soon selected marketing, funding and program committees to distribute the workload.

Late last week, the board even adopted a new logo intended to communicate the organization's new focus. The logo features a sneaker print making up the right side of a red heart.

The different components of the program date back to the 1960s. They combined in the mid-1980s and have been volunteer-operated the entire time.

The United Way made cuts to funding not only for the dental and eye portions of the program, but also to the shoe portion, Smith said.

"The United Way holds us accountable," said Smith, who also directs Community Breast Care Project, Dreams to Reality and Working Wheels for Working Families. "If you're not accountable for funds, you're not going to get funds from the United Way. And that's what happened."

It was Bax who recommended Smith take the reins of the project.

"We have to earn back the trust of the United Way with efficient distribution and accountability," Smith said. "Everything that we have done is restructuring so we can be more efficient."

She said she finds joy in restructuring organizations.

"I like to make things efficient. One of the things — and I guess their (previous board members') minds were blown, but it was simple — was that I suggested we just order shoes and have them drop-shipped to the school," Smith said. "We've already done that in Miller County. And the shoes were ordered online, paid for, and drop-shipped to the school nurse. And the kid went home."

That was efficient for a student who lives far from the nearest shoe store.

The new board has come up with other new ideas that have added to enthusiasm for the project.

Children who need shoes probably also need socks, Smith said. So the organization plans to give socks to recipients.

"I love new socks," she said. "And why do they only feel new that first time?"

The board is also coming up with ideas for fundraisers, which the program didn't conduct before Smith. The United Way requires its agencies to conduct their own fundraisers.

One potential idea, Smith said, was a sock drive with a slogan: "One for me, one for youth."

"Our board had so many exciting ideas about how we can add to the program," she said.

In the next couple of weeks, The Sneaker Project will have its first website and a Facebook page, Smith said.

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