Samaritan’s Feet, a South Carolina-based non-profit that visited Detroit earlier this year and has plans to return this month, has a mission to help put 10 million pairs of shoes on the feet of 10 million impoverished children worldwide, according to Emmanuel “Manny” Ohonme, president and CEO.
During a recent visit to Detroit as part of the NBA Cares Kick-off initiative, Samaritan’s Feet partnered with the Detroit Pistons, National City Bank and the Boll Family YMCA.
“We were the Commuter Service initiative to help put 1,500 pairs of shoes on the feet of children,” Ohonme said. “There are disadvantaged there in the Detroit metro area.”
The original goal was to provide 1,000 pairs of shoes. He said the YMCA reached out to disadvantaged families, and within about an hour and a half they had more than 1,500 people signed up for shoes.
They don’t just go out and hand out shoes. Samaritan’s Feet employees and volunteers actually wash the kids’ feet, and spend five to seven minutes with them, getting to know their names and asking about their dreams and passions. This is done in the spirit of humility and servant leadership.
The children’s feet are also measured to make sure they have the right size shoes.
He said the entire Pistons organization was involved in this.
Ohonme described providing shoes to the kids, and then seeing them get up with smiles on their faces, as a humbling experience.
Samaritan’s Feet provides athletic shoes of various brands to children up to high school age. All shoes are brand new, since most of the poor kids who receive shoes at all generally get hand-me-downs.
Samaritan’s Feet first came to Detroit this spring as one of the charity partners in the 2009 Final Four college basketball tournament.
Ohonme, a native of Nigeria, started Samaritan’s Feet in 2003. The organization works in some 50 countries in North America, South America, Africa, the Caribbean and parts of Asia. He said the seeds were planted about 30 years ago when a missionary came to Nigeria to do sports-based outreaches. Ohonme was one of the children fortunate enough to receive his first pair of tennis shoes. He was also taught basketball, which led to his getting a basketball scholarship to the University of North Dakota – Lake Region.
From there, he transferred to Concordia College in Minnesota, and subsequently earned his master’s degree at North Dakota State University.After graduation, he began a career in software marketing and technology. Then in 1997, he went back to Nigeria for his father’s funeral.
“I saw many of those children in despair, in abject poverty, shoeless,” he said. “And that’s when I remembered what it was like to receive my first pair of shoes, and the inspiration to actually imagine what it would be like to be able to actually provide shoes, teach these kids sports and keep them out of trouble.”
It took five years for this vision to come to fruition.
“In 2003, I left the job I was doing to start this organization with my wife, with a vision to help put 10 million pairs of shoes on the feet of 10 million kids in ten years,” he said. “We call it our ten-ten in ten years.”
Ohonme said that in December 2007, he was fortunate to be invited to come to New York to meet Dr. Maya Angelou, whom he described as one of his favorite people. He said that at that meeting she’d identified Martin Luther King, Jr. as her role model.
He left that meeting inspired and asked himself what he could do to be the voice of 300 million children who wake up every day without a decent pair of shoes.
“That’s when an idea came to mind,” he said. “What if we could get a Division 1 basketball coach to coach a game on national TV without shoes on, to be the voice of these kids.”
Ohonme connected with Coach Ron Hunter of Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis. Hunter agreed to coach a game without shoes; but part of the deal involved trying to raise 40,000 shoes in honor of the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in 2008.
Hunter coached the Jan. 24, 2008 game in his bare feet. He did so again, Jan. 17, 2009.
“He didn’t know if he’d been able to do that (raise 40,000 pairs of shoes), but by game time on Jan. 24, 2008, we had gotten 110,000 pairs of shoes,” Ohonme said.
He added that this past January, Hunter asked about 1,000 coaches nationally to raise more shoes.
“We raised 1.5 million pairs of shoes,” he said. “Kmart ended up giving us about one million pairs of shoes, and a number of organizations had donated a significant number of shoes. That really fueled a lot of outgrowth and that growth continues today.”