You would have been hard pressed Tuesday morning to figure out who had the bigger smiles on their faces.
Was it the more than 400 children from four of Whitley County’s elementary schools, who were there getting their feet washed by University of the Cumberlands’ volunteers before receiving a new pair of shoes, socks and a backpack, or was the university students and staff who were doing the washing?
"I get to do a lot of things at the University of the Cumberlands. I am very blessed that I have been able to do a lot of different jobs but honestly this is probably my most favorite day of the year to be able to help these children and to really make a difference in their lives," said Jennifer Wake-Floyd, one of the organizers of the event.
"To see the smiles on their faces, you can’t leave this place not touched and not feeling like we have a wonderful group of kids in our area, who can make a lot of difference in the world if we only believe in them."
This was the fourth year for the "Shoes 4 the Soul" event, which was formerly named "Barefoot for Barefeet."
For three hours Tuesday morning, students from the four elementary schools packed into gymnasiums at the university and got to play various games and interact with the volunteers from the university in addition to getting their new shoes.
"We are trying to teach people that we are here for them. We want to see them succeed and grow," Wake-Floyd said. "Hopefully in the time they spend here on campus they will see that they have bright futures ahead of them and they will want to return one day."
Wake-Floyd said the idea for the event came about when the charity Samaritan’s Feet approached women’s basketball coach Melissa Irvin four years ago.
Each year, Irvin and her staff along with the opposing team’s staff coach a basketball game in their bare feet to raise awareness that there are many children in the world who don’t have shoes.
"We actually ask people to bring in shoes during those games or give donations. We use that as a starting point each year," Wake-Floyd said.
"Last year we helped 325 kids and this year we were able to help 430 with the same amount of funds being raised thanks to Wal-Mart’s generosity in helping us with the prices for the shoes and the socks and the backpacks."
Tuesday’s event came from Boston, Pleasant View, Whitley East and Whitley North elementary schools.
"We sat down with the family resource centers from each of those schools and asked them who they felt like needed it the most," Wake-Floyd said.
Jasah Nelson, one of the Whitley County students who got new shoes Tuesday, said that he had never had his feet washed like that before but it was "cool."
Members of nine athletic teams from the university participated in the event in addition to students from six Insight classes, which are a freshman orientation classes.
"Instead of sitting in a classroom learning about what it is like being a freshman at Cumberlands, they are spending their first few days hands on being servant leaders and working with these children," Wake-Floyd said.
In addition, about 100 faculty, staff and community volunteers also participated in the event.
Aaron Cook, a junior, participated in the event as a member of the archery team.
"It is something that I enjoy doing anyway. I just love to serve people, especially these children. I have a special place in my heart for them," Cook said. "I do Appalachian Ministries. The little boy, whose feet I just washed, is one I have kind of ministered to for the past two years."
Many of the volunteers said they probably get at least as much enjoyment out of the event as the children do.
"Probably more. I like seeing them run around in their new shoes. They will just take off running. They are so excited," Cook added.
Erin Wibert, a junior who recently transferred to the school, is a member of the volleyball team that also helped out during the event.
"This is all new to me but it is very rewarding already experiencing this with the kids," Wibert noted.
University of the Cumberlands CEO Larry Cockrum, who took in Tuesday’s event first hand, complemented the organizers for their efforts.
"I think it is a great opportunity for our students to give back and learn what giving back through service is. To me it is a wonderful event," Cockrum said. "I see a lot of smiles on faces today."
Wake-Floyd said she would like to see the event grow to about 500 students next year but not much beyond that for logistical reasons.
"I think we are about at capacity using both gyms today, but it is kind of hard to say no when you know there is a need," she added. "I think we are about at what we can do in a mornings worth of work.
"It is really hard to get this many students to be able to help. I think to double it again might be a little out of our reach to be able to do it in the way we want to be able to do it."