It was between classes at the East Elementary School gymnasium when Ke’ona Nunnery, a second-grader with a streak of fuchsia in her hair, surveyed a neatly arranged row of tennis shoes on an empty stage.
Nunnery grabbed a pair of pink and black sneakers.
“I’ll take these,” she said.
Physical education teacher Brett Sperl took a knee on the gym floor and loosened the laces.
“Let’s try them,” he said.
A few minutes later, Nunnery left the gym holding her new acquisition.
Sperl stood up and said Tuesday had been a good day.
“We got 11 kids into shoes today,” he said.
For several years, Sperl has been at the center of Renew-A-Shoe, a program at the elementary school that entails the school accepting lightly-used sneakers for students.
Sperl cleans the shoes, fits them with new laces and donates them to children who need a pair.
In November, the teacher handed out the 100th pair in the program’s history.
Sperl said the program was inspired by students Leann and Jenae Showalter. The sisters brought a dozen pairs of shoes to the school and asked Sperl if anybody could use them.
The program grew from there, and Sperl said he has enjoyed every minute of it.
“It’s really fun to see kids get new shoes. Well, they’re new to them,” he said.
Sperl, who has taught at the school for 23 years, said the program benefits children of all backgrounds.
While the donated sneakers primarily serve needy children, they also help kids in a pinch.
“Some kids maybe just had a new pair, but the dog ate one, or they lost one, or they left one at their mom’s place or their dad’s place,” he said.
Also, the tennis shoes help fulfill one of Sperl’s requirements for his students.
“We have a couple rules in here: have fun, be safe and wear tennis shoes,” he said. “That’s about it. This time of year, after Christmas, kids show up in snow boots.”
As the bell rang one recent day at the elementary school, a new wave of students poured into the gym.
Sperl pointed to the children’s feet.
“Here’s a miracle,” he said. “Everyone has tennis shoes, so it’s working.”
Sneakers, Sperl said, help with athletic performance and to preserve the gym’s carpeted floor.
Sperl said Renew-A-Shoe got a sudden boost from the community last summer after an article appeared in the Daily Press.
“The generosity of the community was incredible,” Sperl said. “For a week or so, every time I came home there would be more shoes hung on the fence, or on the doorknob, or in the yard.
“It took on a life of its own.”
Sperl said the program could use shoes for smaller feet, which he attributes to differing tastes among age groups.
“We are short on sizes 1 through 5,” he said. “The older kids are a little more picky, but the younger ones are easy to please.”
Sperl said the program will continue at least until he retires.
“And, hopefully the person after me will carry on,” he said.
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