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Shoes Confiscated in Florida Help Children in Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Their chapped feet were caked with mud.

Their thin sandals were flimsy and worn to the soles.

No one told the 75 children from Cargena in Port-au-Prince on Thursday they would be receiving brand new shoes - straight from the evidence locker of the Fort Myers (Fla.) Police Department.

"I want to say thank you, thank you so much for this," said 13-year-old Cassondre Thomas, sporting gleaming white and pink sneakers. "They feel so comfortable. I'm so happy right now." The knockoff Nike shoes - almost 1,200 in all - were seized as part of an investigation after 32-year-old Hathum Ayesh was arrested and charged in 2008 with possession of counterfeit trademark goods at his Citgo station.

He later completed a diversion program to avoid prosecution.

Then the Jan. 12 earthquake rocked Port-au-Prince, leaving hundreds of thousands to navigate through mountains of debris and trash with flip-flops.

At the urging of the state attorney's office and Fort Myers Police Capt. Dennis Eads, Lee Circuit Judge Edward Volz Jr. ordered the shoes released earlier this month, after Nike offered no objection to the shoes being sent to Haiti.

Several dozen boxes arrived at the compound of Hope for Haiti, a Naples, Fla.,-based nonprofit organization, on Tuesday. The organization has been stationed in the country for years, but recently focused on meeting the critical needs of earthquake victims.

The children ages 6 to 12 are all now living in tents with their families - or what is left of their families - after their homes were destroyed. Little Brothers and Sisters, a Haitian organization, has been organizing activities for the children outside the camp on a daily basis.

On Thursday, the children sang songs of welcome to the Hope for Haiti workers as they unloaded cardboard boxes, packed to the brim.

Their eyes widened as they were lined up, chattering in escalated excitement as, one-by-one, pairs were fished out and handed to them.

They gleefully grabbed the footwear and raced to the nearby field, where they began trying them on, and switching.

"These are too big, let's trade!" shouted 10-year-old Billie Jean to his playmate.

Many seemed confused by the laces, and several workers knelt to help tie them.

"In a lot of places, you can't go to school unless you have a pair of shoes," said Hope for Haiti program director Mike Stewart. "So really, having a good pair of shoes is like having freedom. They can go where they need to go, and it's going to reduce their risk of injury when they're walking around in the streets." Stewart also said several shoes that came in singles also were sent, for the many new amputees.

There are more shoes set to be delivered in the coming weeks as Hope for Haiti works to secure safe places to distribute them.

Fort Myers Police Chief Doug Baker said there were many people who made the moment possible: Nike, the state attorney, Eads, attorney Pete Aiken and others.

"I'm just very grateful that something good came out of this case, and these shoes were able to get to people who desperately needed them," Baker said.

Phillip Binon, 42, of Little Brothers and Sisters, beamed as he watched the children wiggling each pair on their feet.

"It's a good day," Binon said. "We haven't had one of those in a while." Matthew Girodieu, 8, thought so, too.

"I will wear these always," Matthew said.

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