Shoes a gift that will keep on giving for Conway students

South Conway Elementary School teacher Jillian D’Alessandro cried as she watched her second-graders fitted into brand new sneakers in the school gymnasium Tuesday morning.

For many of them, she said, it may have been the first pair of new shoes they ever had, and she was overwhelmed with the sight of them cavorting in their new sneakers and with the reality of someone outside the school caring so much about the students.

“I don’t know if you could put a price tag on that,” she said.

The shoes were an early Christmas gift from the members of NewSpring Church, part of a statewide effort from seven of the Greenville-based church’s eight campuses, or locations.

Charlie Bagwell, campus pastor for the church’s Myrtle Beach location, said the church worked statewide with New Balance shoes to provide sneakers to thousands of children primarily from low-income families.

Leon Hayes, principal at South Conway Elementary, said that 90 percent of the school’s 600 students are eligible for free and reduced lunch, making it one of the poorest in Horry County.

He said school personnel had gotten together earlier this year and decided independently of NewSpring that they wanted to try to give each of the students a new pair of shoes for Christmas. He said the school wrote letters to Nike and Converse seeking a partner to help with the cost, but was unsuccessful on both tries.

“We kind of put it to bed,” he said.

Then, out of the blue, he got a call from Bagwell that made the school’s dream a reality.

D’Alessandro said announcement of the impending event at a staff meeting caused quite a stir.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” she said.

She said the school’s staff had chosen shoes as gifts for the students because teachers noticed that many of the students wore flip flops and during cold weather, shoes that didn’t provide much warmth.

She said the school keeps a closet of supplies students might need but not be able to afford and shoes are the thing chosen most often.

The church got shoes sizes from every student and the church ordered a pair of sneakers for each.

Students filed into the gym Tuesday by classes to enthusiastic cheers from church volunteers who outfitted each student with a pair of shoes designated specifically for him or her.

But the day was more than just a sneaker giveaway, said Whitney Glenn, a church member who took a personal day of leave from her job as a kindergarten teacher at Pee Dee Elementary School to help with the event at South Conway Elementary.

“This is more than just the shoes,” she said. “This is somebody caring about you.”

D’Alessandro said that for many of South Conway Elementary’s students, school is the place where they get the most support and stability. Having that come from somebody besides their teachers helps reinforce to students that they are valued.

“This is pretty huge in our school,” Hayes said.