DECATUR — Before receiving their new pair of socks and shoes, Muffley School students had their feet washed by volunteers for Samaritan's Feet, just like Jesus washed the feet of his disciples in the book of John in the Bible.
“It made me feel like royalty,” said Hayden Rice, a fifth-grader, during Thursday's event.
And though Gracie Page, also a fifth-grader, is ticklish, she appreciated the gesture, too, she said.
Samaritan's Feet is based in North Carolina, and its mission is to provide shoes to children worldwide “as the foundation to a spiritual and healthy life resulting in the advancement of education and economic opportunities,” according to its website.
Denise Blomberg, regional director of operations, was at the event Thursday, which was held across the street from the school at Calvary Southern Baptist Church. She said Samaritan's Feet was founded by Manny Ohonme, a Nigerian by birth, who received his first pair of shoes at the age of 9. He came to the United States, became a successful businessman and wanted to give back. Because his first pair of shoes had such a significant impact on his life, he chose providing shoes as a way to serve others.
Blomberg was busy making a list of sizes they were running out of so she could make a flying trip to buy more.
“This is a very inexact science, what we do,” she said. “It's like inviting 400 people for Thanksgiving dinner and hoping you have enough turkey, ham and corn for everyone. When we do this, obviously, we did not measure every child ahead of time because that's labor-intensive and doesn't provide us with the same information.”
In all, 400 children received socks and shoes, which included every one of the 355 students at Muffley, plus a number of students from other schools. The handful of kids who were absent that day will receive theirs when they come back to school, Principal Carrie Hogue said.
Muffley was chosen, Hogue said, "Because somebody knew somebody who knew somebody (without shoes)."
That "somebody" was Jamie Nagy, who is originally from Decatur and now lives in Ohio. Her husband met Blomberg at an event, and Nagy put Blomberg in touch with Muffley. Nagy traveled to Decatur on Thursday so she could see the event for herself.
The distribution was part of Samaritan's Feet's back-to-school distribution of shoes in the U.S., during which 50,000 kids in 16 states received shoes. The funds came from a Walmart grant distributed through the state of Illinois.
It took 108 volunteers to pull off an event like this one, and students from the city's high schools pitched in to help.
Taylor and Madison Prasun's mother, Melissa Prasun, teaches at Muffley, and both girls attended the school, too. Now a senior and freshman at St. Teresa High School, they spent the morning fetching fresh water for the foot-washing, directing kids and adults to where they needed to be, and running back and forth for shoes out of the waiting bins of various sizes.
“I just think it's such a cool thing,” Taylor said. “You get to see their reactions.”
Depending on the size of the child's foot, the kids could choose from a couple of different styles, Madison said. Boxes of shoes lined one wall of the church's fellowship hall and each child was also issued a bag in which to carry home their old shoes and socks.
Volunteering at such an event, said Brett Sharp, a junior at St. Teresa, reminds him of how blessed he is and makes him want to do even more to help the community.
“It's just another example of 'It takes a village,'” said Superintendent Paul Fregeau, who atttended the event on a break from a training session for Decatur School District administrators. “It's a great opportunity for our kids to take care of their needs and it's awesome, the volunteers. We've got students, we've got adults, just everybody helping.”
The Rev. Mitch Flesch, pastor of Calvary, said the church and school have a cordial relationship. The church helped with a lunch for volunteers after the event, prepared by church members, and several members also volunteered for the event itself.
"When they asked if they could use the church for their event, we were delighted to help out," he said.