ATWATER -- The middle of winter is no time for sandals in the Merced area, especially when morning temperatures fall to around 30 degrees.
But for many kids from low-income families, it's all they can afford.
"It's sad to see children who don't have shoes come to school in flip-flops in the winter," said Susan Nix, vice president of Happy Feet, an organization aimed at providing kids with new shoes in time for the cold months.
The nonprofit, which formed in 2011, is set to provide shoes to kids for the first time this year, Nix said. The group raised enough money to buy socks, shoes and underwear for 53 kids.
Happy Feet picked the school with the lowest socioeconomic status in Atwater -- Aileen Colburn Elementary. The school then created a list of 53 students in need.
Those involved in Happy Feet said the campaign is making more progress than originally expected. Only $1,000 was needed for the 53 kids, but $2,400 has been raised.
Nix said the extra funds will be carried over for the next group of kids.
"We're trying to make sure that all of the money goes to the kids," Nix said, adding that because of the organization's low administrative costs, 99 percent of donations go toward the kids. The nonprofit's only expense is $100 for an accountant.
Those donating to the organization include churches, businesses, clubs and individuals, Nix said. Happy Feet is focused on kids in Atwater this year, but hopes to expand to other Merced County communities.
Brynn Wolcott, president of Happy Feet, said she's taken part in a similar program with a Southern California charity, but the students didn't get to pick out their own shoes. She thinks giving kids the opportunity to make that choice makes a difference.
"It's much more empowering," Wolcott said.
Improved self-esteem and proper clothing can help students focus on schoolwork, she noted.
"When you feel good about yourself, you can concentrate better on whatever it is you're trying to do," Wolcott said.
Many underprivileged children who wear shoes to school get them handed down from family members, Wolcott said. Others have shoes that are too small and dilapidated, sometimes so badly that their toes stick out.
"We're just trying to give them some dignity," she said. "We're trying to give them a good start at school."
Atwater Mayor Joan Faul spent her career in the area working as a teacher, vice principal, associate principal and principal of summer-school programs.
She said providing shoes to kids to keep their feet warm and dry will allow them to focus on their schoolwork, avoid being targeted by bullies and have more self-respect.
"They want to be like the other kids," Faul said, adding that being properly dressed would make anyone better and more fruitful. "I think it's wonderful."
Happy Feet organizers plan to continue their campaign at the start of winter every year.
This year's event is taking place Dec. 15. Students will be brought to Payless ShoeSource by their parents in 15-minute intervals to pick out a pair of shoes. The store is opening early for the event and allowing a buy one, get one half-off deal for the organization.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.