Soles for the Soul: Good Samaritans Kick Start Lives, One Shoe at a Time

Sal holds a Political Science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.
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Samaritan's Feet founder Manny Ohonme fits a shoe on a Peruvian boy in 2009. (Photo: Courtesy of Samaritan's Feet)

Close your eyes and take a mental stroll through your shoe closet. Done? Okay, now saunter over to the floor area by your front door. Got it? How many pairs of shoes do you own? If you don't know or can't recall exactly, you probably view shoes as a fashion statement. But, in many parts of the world, especially the developing nations, footwear is more than a fad or a trend—it is a lifeline to health and education.

Enter Samaritan's Feet. Founded by Emmanuel "Manny" Ohonme in 2003, the nonprofit organization aims to sole the heels of the world's impoverished children.

In the run-up to this weekend’s Final Four in Houston, Texas, Buick has teamed up with the NCAA and Samaritan’s Feet to donate 2,011 pairs of shoes and socks to local children. The event, dubbed “Shoes of Hope,” will be held at the Acres Home Multi-Service Center on Thursday, March 31.

Of the 300 million children in the world who don’t own shoes, nearly 1 million die each year as a result of soil-transmitted illnesses and foot-borne diseases.

Born and raised in a small village in Lagos, Nigeria, Ohonme could have been one of those senseless deaths.

But, at age nine, his life trajectory was changed by the generosity of an American missionary from Wisconsin who gave him his first pair of shoes.

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A boy's foot is sized by a Samaritan's Feet volunteer. (Photo: Courtesy of Samaritan's Feet)

“That was like two nuggets of gold, because the kids that lived in my neighborhood, their parents made less than one dollar a day; so shoes weren’t part of the things that they could afford. Just to have one meal a day was a luxury for many of these people,” says Ohonme.

That missionary—Ohonme only remembers that he was called “Dave”—gave the little boy something else of great, great value: hope.

“He looked me in the eye and told me to keep dreaming and to believe that the impossible can be possible for me,” says Ohonme.

Armed with an injection of self-confidence and a new pair of canvas kicks, the boy fell in love with the game of basketball. Ohonme the kid grew into Ohonme the tall, muscular, and athletic teenager, and, years later, he earned a basketball scholarship at the University of North Dakota, Lake Region.

A transfer took him to Concordia University in Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and business in 1992. A subsequent master’s degree from North Dakota State led to a career in the supply chain software industry.

In 1997, during a trip back to Nigeria for his father’s funeral, Ohonme was struck by the grim reality he had left behind: boys and girls living under the strain of poverty, drug abuse, war and roving gangs.

“I saw those faces, I saw their eyes, I saw their hopelessness, and I said, ‘Man, what would it be like to be able to just cause that sparkle to come alive?’ “ says Ohonme. “That’s when I realized I was placed here for a reason that was bigger than me.”

In March 2003, he left the comfort and security of his job and founded Samaritan’s Feet. Right off the bat, the organization set the bar high for itself: distributing 10 million pairs of shoes in 10 years.

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Two South African boys hold up their new kicks in 2009.  (Photo: Courtesy of Samaritan's Feet)

“We’ve already raised and impacted about 3 million children in over 61 countries around the world—from Africa to South America, the Caribbean to the Middle East and Asia,” says Ohonme.

More than 70,000 people have volunteered for the group and around 25 percent of the nonprofit’s work is conducted in the U.S.

“There are no boundaries, no geography,” says Ohonme. “Some of these kids wear these shoes that are two, three, four sizes too small and have holes in their soles and are embarrassed to go to school.”

During the NCAA tournament, Ohonme’s story has been featured on the Buick Human Highlight Reel, a collection of clips about former NCAA basketball players who have gone on “…to excel in the post game of life,” says Nick Richards, a communications manager at Buick.

“Buick considers itself a community brand, and we wanted to put our money where our mouth was and help get these types of stories out there,” says Richards.

To be able to align ourselves with one of the most recognizable brands in the world, General Motors and Buick, is amazing,” says Ohonme. “It is a car company that cares more about acts than ads, and I’m hoping more kids will someday rise up and say that because of this relationship, 'I’m going to school today.' ”

More than 2,000 pairs of shoes will be given away on Thursday, but footwear is just the vessel by which the event’s volunteers can engage a young, impressionable child in conversation, says Ohonme.

“Shoes are just the entry point,” he explains. “Even though all they see around them is poverty, it doesn’t mean that they’re forgotten. And we’ll literally wash their feet, band their open sores, put on new socks, put on new shoes, and challenge these kids to go walk in their new step toward whatever their potential is.”

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A boy hugs Samaritan's Feet founder Manny Ohomne after getting a pair of shoes. (Photo: Courtesy of Samaritan's Feet)

Asked to share one story that stood out in the past eight years, Ohonme recalled a touching tale of reciprocity.

“I remember going to an orphanage in northern Nigeria a few years back and meeting a young boy who lived through some major persecution,” says Ohonme. “At the end of the day, this kid looked me in the eye, and I said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?' He said, ‘I want to do what you do. I want to help make a difference and bless people just like me around the world.’ ”

Ohonme and his wife, Tracie, sponsored the boy, Ibrahim Sanni, to attend a missionary school in southern Africa, where he excelled academically. Later this year, Sanni will join the Samaritan’s Feet team as an employee in the company’s warehouse.

“It’s all about the gift that keeps on giving. If you look at my world, somebody inconvenienced themselves 30 years ago to come to Africa and go through the mosquitoes and water and all those bad things,” says Ohonme. “And because of that one gift, that simple act of compassion, a vision for an organization called Samaritan’s Feet was birthed.”

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