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New shoes for Christmas: Tillman students celebrate with a trip to mall, Santa (gallery)

MANATEE -- Twins Gloria and Nathaniel Decker giggled with excitement as they waited outside the Payless Shoe Store in DeSoto Square mall Friday morning.

They were going to pick out a new pair of shoes.

“I want pink,” said 4-year-old Gloria. “I like pink.”

“I like orange,” said Nathaniel as he pointed to the orange stripe of his Florida Gators jacket.

The pre-kindergartners were part of a group of children from Tillman Elementary School being treated to new shoes, compliments of sorority Beta Sigma Phi Preceptor Omicron chapter. The shoe shopping trip is an annual community service project for the sorority, according to Cheryl Keegan, president of the 14-member group.

It’s the sorority’s way to give back to the community, she said.

“I wish we could do more like this,” said Keegan. “It’s fun and the kids are so good.”

The shoes and trip to the mall costs about $500 for the sorority, and is paid for using membership dues and assessments, said Keegan. After the children pick out their shoes, they are treated to lunch at Chick-fil-A in the mall, Christmas caroling and a visit with Santa Claus, before returning to school.

The project was started about 20 years ago by a former sorority member who has since moved away, said Maria Vitola, a longtime member who was on hand with about a half dozen others to help fit shoes.

“That was just so meaningful for us, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” she said.

“A lot of them get hand-me-down shoes, so this is the first time they’ve gotten new shoes.”

Marianne Eurice has taken the reins of the project and each year coordinates the event with the school and stores. Twenty four children made the trip this year.

“With the economy, there’s really a need now, but we can only take so many children,” said Eurice.

For some of the children, it was the first time they had been to the mall, and the first time choosing anything for themselves, said Keegan.

“They’ve never experienced anything like this before,” she said.

The children get excited about the shopping trip and the chance to pick out their own pair of shoes, said Kathy Powell, a Tillman Elementary School social educator, who has helped with the shopping trip for the past 15 years.

“This starts their Christmas off for them,” she said. “It’s a big help to the families.”

After only a few minutes of shopping, Nathaniel had already found a pair of new sneakers that even had a little orange on them.

“Oooohh, I like these ones,” squealed the little boy.

Gloria couldn’t find any pink shoes, but narrowed her decision to a black pair of dress shoes with sparkles, and a tan pair with embroidered butterflies. She eventually settled on the tan pair.

“I like these,” said the little girl, marching up and down the aisle.

One little boy didn’t want to take his new shoes off, said Keegan, as she walked around helping other children.

“He didn’t want to put his shoes back on because he was a size 5 1/2 and his old shoes were a size 4,” she said.

Nine-year-old Precious Henderson was scanning the racks, hoping to find a new pair of boots.

“I want a pair of boots because it’s going to be super cold this winter,” said the Tillman Elementary School third-grader.

Precious tried on a pair of black ones with silver trim, but they were too tight.

After trying on several pairs of boots and shoes, she finally discovered a pair of high top sneakers with plaid accents and two-tone laces. It brought a big smile to her face.

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Eurice.

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