The Shoebox Project
Verunka Vlkova-Fierro is one of the co-chairs of the New York chapter of the Shoebox Project. The Shoebox Project for Shelters collects and distributes gift-filled shoeboxes to local women living in shelters across New York City. Since starting the chapter with her husband in 2015, they've seen donations nearly quadruple. For the upcoming drive, her goal is to deliver shoeboxes to even more shelters, have more outreach events, form partnerships with brands that truly want to help women during the most challenging time in their lives and spread the message about the new face of homelessness.
What is your personal definition of success?
Doing what you love to do, having genuinely supportive people around you, a healthy mind/body and the time to help others.
What is something you wish you had known when you began The NYC Chapter of The Shoebox Project?
I didn’t realize how quickly it would grow and how difficult it would be to sustain the NYC Chapter. I would have brought in more high-level volunteers earlier! When you have a big vision, it is impossible to grow without the help of others.
What are some techniques you use to manage stress / and the competing demands of The Shoebox Project and home life?
I have a creative brain with ideas that pop out a million times a minute and wanted to make sure that I was somebody who would follow through. So, I work hard on being focused and centered by meditating every day, exercising 4-5 times a week and remaining organized with great list apps like Trello & Wunderlist. It always feels gratifying checking off something on those lists!
What is your view on failure?
You have to learn from your failures! It is always exciting when things are going well, and people are surrounding you with support, but it is just as important to understand the loneliness that comes when it doesn’t go as planned. It changes you. I think that is the most significant gift from failure; you come out a different person with a new view of the world and yourself. You learn the honesty of the process. You also realize that you survived it before, so why not try again?
What advice would you give to other women wanting to start Shoebox Project Chapters?
The Shoebox Project’s primary goal is to deliver Shoeboxes filled with little luxuries to women who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I love the aspect of the women receiving the Shoeboxes, but when I expanded to having outreach events for the women at NYC shelters, that changed my life.
Seeing them, meeting them, getting to understand them a bit more. You see the way various women have been broken by their life experiences, you see it in their eyes, even when they are smiling. I think it is essential to connect with these women as a friend versus charity. I grew up, and my family struggled, and when people helped us, very often, there was a clear message of “you should be grateful for this.” I never want the women to feel this. We just had a Spa Event at a women’s shelter, and one of the women pointed out that it seemed like we all wanted to be there genuinely and we're excited to share with them. She loved that we were not there to clock in volunteer time or our companies were making us do this. When she said that, I knew we were going in the right direction!
Any other thoughts or words of wisdom to share?
It just takes one person to be brave enough to start something; you have to push through that fear. You must surround yourself with genuinely supportive friends and family. There will always be doubt within yourself but do not feed it with negative comments from others; you will never succeed that way.
Also, you have to accept help from people more successful than you. It is impossible to know everything and the more inspiring people you let in, the more you will learn, and the more successful your project will be.