Theft of 500 pairs of running shoes devastates nonprofit Students Run L.A.

Four students run past a house
Students from the Bell High School chapter of Students Run L.A. during a workout. The nonprofit recently had 500 pairs of shoes stolen.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It was bad enough when Christine Pajak noticed the locks on bins containing her organization’s essential possessions — children’s jogging shoes — were mangled. She looked inside and saw that hundreds of shoes donated to Students Run L.A. were gone.

It was even worse two days later. Despite bolstering security measures, she found a large hole cut into the gate that protected their bins. Someone boldly struck again at their headquarters at a school in Tarzana. It was a wipe out — 500 pairs of running shoes to be given to kids who can’t afford to buy them were gone — jeopardizing the upcoming season for the 30-year-old nonprofit organization that teaches kids at 185 schools how to become runners and embrace physical fitness.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” Pajak said. “I couldn’t believe that even after we took all those steps, that they came back and decided to take even more than what they took the first time.”


These shoes are more than just material goods. They are necessary for the students who work nearly all year with the organization’s trainers to prepare for the Los Angeles Marathon. Since its inception in 1989, Students Run L.A. has trained more than 75,000 students to participate, providing shoes, uniforms, transportation and bringing trainers to their schools.

Andrea Jimenez, an alum of Students Run L.A. who graduated in 2020, is now working on their social media and community engagement. She said the importance of the supplies provided to these students cannot be overstated. Before joining Students Run L.A., she would run in hiking shoes.

“Most of the schools are low income, and coming from a low-income family myself, I was really appreciative of all the resources they actually gave me, such as the transportation, uniforms, because I wouldn’t have had access to all these things,” she said.

This theft has set back operations at Students Run L.A. — not only do they need to replace shoes, but they also are looking for a new and safer space to store supplies.

“We feel now that it’s been compromised,” said Executive Director Marsha Charney. “That’s taken a lot of our attention.”

Officer Luis Castañeda of the Los Angeles School Police Department responded to both incidents and said an investigation is underway. Though common sense tells him the same person was involved in both break-ins, police are unsure.

“Either someone had intel on what was inside those bins, or someone was out fishing, and they just found what they wanted,” Castañeda said.

During pandemic-forced school closures, Students Run L.A. continued on Zoom. Charney said they are expecting many more participants in the coming season, as training has transitioned back to in-person — an inopportune time for a major loss of supplies.

Charney is hopeful the organization’s partnership with Nike will help to replenish the shoe supply. Yet she says the theft has taken more than just a financial toll on the organization, but a spiritual one as well — compromising their sense of security.

“We’ve known since we’ve started this, we’ve known that for many of the kids, the shoes that they get in December are the only shoes they wear,” Charney said. “For that to be taken away would be terrible.”


Eduardo Rebollar, a member of Bell High School’s Students Run L.A. chapter, said he joined after the pandemic took a serious toll on his mental health. He remembers the excitement of getting his Nikes last December, only his second pair of running shoes, and how it helped fuel his confidence to run the marathon. He and his Bell High SRLA classmates loved the club enough that they decided to keep meeting over the summer, even though the season does not start until August.

“I didn’t want to go through that mental health stuff anymore, so SRLA made me motivated, and got me meeting new friends and new people,” he said.

Lizbeth Sanchez is one of Eduardo’s classmates, and this upcoming year will be her fourth marathon with SRLA. When she started, she says, she could barely run a mile. Yet with the resources and support of her coaches, she slowly built the confidence to take it all the way.

“SRLA really provides,” she said. “And it shows that it’s a family, not just people who run.”