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Kids wiggle their toes into free shoes

Choosing the perfect pair of shoes can be a daunting task, even when the footwear is free.

Just ask Jessica Lasprilla, 10, one of more than 260 children who picked up a pair of shoes Sunday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in north Tampa.

The sky-blue satin Cross Trekkers? Too small.

The backless denim tennis shoes? Too big.

A dozen pairs later, she finally settled on a fashionable pair of white slip-on tennis shoes.

The entire selection was provided through a collaborative effort of Mosaico Latino of J.P. Morgan Chase; St. Mary's Santa Maria Mission, which for the past two years has been hosting Sunday services underneath a tent on 15th Street near the University of South Florida; and Footprints Ministry. Volunteers from the Santa Maria Mission hosted the event with a grant from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Families in the area around the mission drove to St. Mary's in north Tampa. Volunteers from the mission provided transportation to those who couldn't get there themselves.

Once at the church, children up to 18 years old were fitted for shoes, given a pair of socks and then directed to bins to choose their favorite pair.

Vanessa Munoz, 8, settled on black Mary Janes with a substantial heel and a Velcro closure.

She wanted a pretty pair, she said, rather than the more utilitarian white sneakers.

All the available shoes, however, were sturdy.

"There are no sandals or flip-flops," said Clearwater resident Rose Averill, founder of Footprints Ministry, who brought the inventory. Averill and her husband, Frank, came up with the idea for Footprints while volunteering last summer at Camp Joy, an overnight camp in Ellenton for homeless kids. While there, Frank, a pulmonologist, was alarmed by the condition of the campers' feet.

"We realized they were getting not only blisters and bruises but were causing permanent damage from squeezing their feet into shoes that were too small," Rose Averill said. "Most of them had never had a new pair of shoes."

She asked around at bay area homeless shelters and confirmed that they desperately needed children's shoes.

She launched Footprints Ministry to fill the need. With financial contributions from members of the community, she buys thousands of shoes for no more than $5 a pair at Target, Kmart and other stores, then organizes monthly giveaways.

In August, Footprints will be at the Salvation Army in Clearwater.

Averill brings bins packed with everything from tiny pink tennis shoes for infants adorned with Disney princesses to heavy black Everlast athletic shoes for teenage boys.

Several hundred shoes were donated by Pinellas County schoolchildren who collected the shoes as community service projects. About 45 volunteers drove families to the church and helped size the children's feet.

"It's a grass roots effort," Averill said, adding that Sunday's turnout was impressive. "This was the most we've given out," she said. "We all had an awesome time."

_ For more information, visit Footprints Ministry on the web at www.footprintsministry.net or call Rose Averill at (727) 424-3402.

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