SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (AP) — It's controlled chaos on a Sunday morning as a white Freightliner bus of indeterminate age rumbles down Sheep Island Road in Berkeley County.
Alaysha, age 8, sits in the front seat and helps hand out doughnut holes to the kids as they climb on board. One row back, 1-year-old Armani has icing smeared across her lips and cheeks.
"Armani, you can't hide that doughnut under your leg!" says her big sister, Annysha.
From the back comes a yell — "Hey, we missed Pooh Road!"
Looming over it all is 6-foot-4 Jeff Bleamer, a former NFL offensive lineman and current assistant coach at Cane Bay High School. Bleamer sports a Cane Bay shirt, shorts and flip-flops and a brace on his right knee, a reminder of his football days at Penn State and in the NFL.
"Ya Ya, where'd you get those pink shoes?" Bleamer asks one of his "van kids", who are on their way to Providence Wesleyan Church. The girl smiles shyly.
"I've worn them to school five times," she says proudly.
Bleamer, a member of former Citadel coach Charlie Taaffe's staff during the Bulldogs' "glory years" in the early 1990s, has been driving his van kids to church on Sunday mornings for years. He's formed a bond with the 15 or 20 kids who usually wait to be picked up each Sunday.
"It's kind of great to see this big, burly ex-NFL lineman loving on these little kids," said Wayne Otto, pastor of Providence Wesleyan. "It's an incredible thing to see his heart for them."
But the van kids ministry hit a roadblock last spring when the church's van was stolen right from the church's parking lot.
"Who would steal a van out of a church parking lot?" Bleamer asks. "That's pretty low down."
The van was never found, and, for most of the summer, Bleamer and other congregation members had to pick up the kids on Sundays in their own cars.
"When the van was stolen, it was devastating," said Cheyenne Bayles, head of Providence's youth ministry. "That van was used not only on Sundays but also on Wednesdays to pick up students. The kids were like, 'Can you not come and get us anymore?'"
A Citadel graduate named Richard Sachs donated the Freightliner bus to Providence, but it was in need of repairs to make it road-ready.
The church was able to raise almost $4,000 to get the bus on the road. The air conditioner is still temperamental, but the 16 kids on the bus on a recent Sunday didn't seem to mind.
"A bunch of my former players and coaches, friends of my wife and daughters, they all donated," said Bleamer, 66, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976 and '77 and coached at The Citadel from 1987-97. "It was pretty amazing."
Bleamer and the bus ministry are an important part of the church's outreach into a community that's near the rapidly spreading Nexton development and other more economically challenged areas of Berkeley County.
"We've tried really hard to be partners in the community and to love on the children who live nearby," Otto said. "Diversity is one of the things we've worked hard on. We as a church are ethnically diverse and have made an intentional effort at being an integrated church."
On this Sunday, church member Thomas Fowler is driving and Jodi Bogue is in charge of the snacks. Bleamer shepherds the kids into the bus.
"Just seeing those smiling faces, man," he said. "Kids are kids, but when you see the smile on their faces when the bus pulls up, that's all that matters to me."
Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com