The small children, ages 3 to 5, had walked with their teachers to the assembly room at the Aiken-Barnwell Head Start center on Beaufort Street in Aiken.

Within a few moments, the kids began to understand: They seemed to have arrived at a shoe store within their school.

Every spring, volunteers with the First Baptist Church of North Augusta donate shoes to the children – visiting all the Head Start centers in Aiken, Barnwell and McCormick counties. During the Christmas holidays, the church provides shoes to children in the schools as well.

“We started this program 11 years ago,” said Mark Owens, the church’s missions and evangelism director. “The best part is seeing the kids’ faces when we open the box of shoes. They just light up and we can see how high they can jump and how fast they can run. It’s a joy.”

The younger children watched shyly as other kids tried on shoes that were sized in advance by the Head Start staff. When it was their turn, they soon warmed to their benefactors. They happily walked away with new shoes and socks and clutched the box containing the old pair of shoes.

Retired principals Gene Robbins and Eddie Watkins worked with children throughout their careers. In retirement, that hasn’t really stopped.

“If you like kids, this is the best kind of thing,” Robbins said. “The kids get the shoes, but we get the rewards. This is a big deal for them.”

Watkins said he feels a little like Santa Claus at each of the deliveries.

“It can be heartbreaking to see we’re taking off the shoes we gave the children the year before,” he said. “It’s good to show the kids about God’s ministry,” he said.

First Baptist’s generosity means so much to the parents and the children, said Beverly Ashley, a Head Start administrator.

“We love the laughter and delight on their faces,” she said. “We’re so grateful to the church for the work they do.”

• Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard’s education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.