Like many people, Aneata Bonic, the director of the Embry Rucker Community Shelter, has a guilty pleasure or two.
"With Aneata, it’s shoes. She loves them," said a laughing Faye Yu, the shelter’s volunteer coordinator. "She must have about 70 pairs. She is always very fashionable and she expects her staff to have new shiny shoes, too. If we wear the same shoes three days in a row, she’ll get on us about it."
Now someone is going to have to follow in the well-trodden footsteps of the director’s six-dozen pairs of shoes. Last week, Bonic announced she is leaving the post she has held for almost eight years. Her colleagues insist that whoever succeeds Bonic is going to have some very big shoes to fill.
"She’s irreplaceable," said Joe Meyer, the shelter’s assistant director. "Sure there will be someone at her desk, but in my mind, there isn’t anybody who will be able to do all that she has done here. I know that a day won’t go by when I won’t walk down this hall and want to stop in her office and ask for advice."
Saddened at her departure, Bonic’s co-workers insisted that her departure would be a big blow to the Reston shelter. "This can be a very stressful job and a very stressful place, but Aneata had a knack for always keeping everyone around her up and motivated. Not everybody can do that," said Meyer, who Bonic hired nearly three years ago. "We are going to miss her as a leader. We are going to miss her as a boss and, perhaps most importantly, we are going to miss her as a friend. She’s meant everything to me."
Bonic resigned from her post earlier this month after her husband, Victor, who works in the IT security field, accepted a position in the Silicon Valley of Northern California. The couple, who has two grown children ages 20 and 24, has lived in Virginia for nearly a quarter century, and has lived on the border of Reston and Herndon for nearly 18 of those years. While she admits she will not miss the snow and cold weather, she says her impending cross-country move is a "little bit daunting."
"It’s tough saying good-bye to our home here and all the friends we have made over the years," Bonic said. "It’s hard leaving a community that has become so much a part of your life over the years. We’ve all made so many connections with this great community."
Bonic acknowledged Reston for its ongoing "steadfast and unwavering dedication" to the shelter. "In good times and in bad, they have always been here for us and that means so much to all of us. We would not be here today without the unwavering support of this shelter," Bonic said. "I just want to thank everyone who has helped us over the years. It really means a lot. Reston has always been a very unique place and it has truly been an honor and a privilege to come to work here everyday."
Without the support of the communities of Reston and Herndon, Fairfax County, politicians, area companies and local volunteers, Bonic said that the shelter wouldn’t be what it is today. "Just about anything we asked for, we got," she said.
THOUGH BONIC would not admit it, her colleagues insist that much of the credit to Embry Rucker’s success as a community shelter belongs with Bonic, who has been at the helm, day in and day out, for about half of the shelter’s nearly 16 years in Fairfax County. "It’s a loss for us, no doubt," said Meyer. "But it is also going to be a loss for this community."
High praise for someone who didn’t think she would even like the job when she was offered it eight years ago. Before taking over the job of director, Bonic worked as a case manager at the shelter. "That’s what has surprised me the most," Bonic admitted. "I didn’t think I would actually enjoy working with the homeless."
Now she can’t imagine her life without them. The outgoing director said that each of the thousands of clients, including individuals and families, that have come through the shelter’s doors under her watch, have a story to tell. Bonic said that one former female client holds a special place near and dear to her. One woman spent 14 months before she receive her section 8 housing voucher. "She worked really hard and she was so determined to succeed and very appreciative of everything we did for her," she said. "She still comes around every once in awhile. I am really proud of her."
While not all clients lead successful lives after leaving Embry Rucker, many do, Bonic said. "Many of the success stories, we never get to hear about," she said. "They get what they need here and then they move on and don’t look back. That is just as fulfilling."
Making the shelter a success requires commitment and time, Bonic said. Bonic was not afraid to put in long hours to see her goals for her shelter were met, her colleagues said. She leads by example, they all agreed. When Yu began working at the shelter earlier this year, she was working until 7 or 8 each night, trying to catch up with all the work her new job entailed. "You know what? Aneata was there until 8 or 9 each night, right beside to me," Yu said. "She was devoted to this place."
Meyer agreed, saying that there was no job to big, or too small, for his boss. "On the one hand, you would see her raking leaves in the front, sweeping floors in the kitchen," the assistant director said. "On the other hand, you would see her here late into the night writing grant proposals. She did everything."
In July 1999, Debra Hurdle moved from working directly for the county to the shelter because of Bonic, the shelter’s project manager said. "I followed her here," she said. From the first time I met her, I knew she was completely committed to the cause."
For Bonic, the work was always collaborative, she said. "I am really proud of my team here. They are great people and, I can tell you, we certainly don’t do it for the money," she said. "We are a family here and we have to be. I am going to miss that bond."
That sense of family is evident in the shelter staff’s daily lunches in their cramped meeting room. "More often than not, we all have lunch gathered in here together just talking about everything from politics to pop culture. Don’t get her started on Katie Couric or J. Lo. She’s not a fan."
Hurdle said those conversations are particularly entertaining because of Bonic’s characteristic frankness, openness and candor. "Aneata doesn’t know how to censor herself," Hurdle said. "She speaks her mind. She is such a strong personality. She’s incredibly intelligent, but she also has a tremendous sense of humor and is amazingly generous."