Listen to Emmanuel “Manny” Ohonme talk about creating a world without shoe-less children. Do that for five, maybe ten minutes, and you’ll be thankful that he’s on the job and simultaneously stricken that so many go without the simplest things in life.
Ohonme’s mission is simple: A pair of shoes can change a life.
As the founder, president and CEO of Samaritan’s Feet — a ministry-based non-profit that distributes new socks and shoes to people in need — Ohonme is taking things one pair at a time. Since its founding in 2003, Samaritan’s Feet has touched the feet of 6.5 million people. Literally.
The distribution of socks and shoes isn’t akin to loaves of bread out of the back of a trailer. Recipients are measured — poorly-fitting does not a good shoe make — and then their feet are gently washed in a basin with hot, soapy water. Then they’re fitted with the gear, all of which is new.
“It’s pretty amazing to somebody’s feet, wash their feet, and look them in the eye and tell them that they have dreams — they can be anything,” Ohonme said. “And as you put those new socks and new shoes on their feet, tell them to go walk in their destiny.”
Not everybody can speak that arrangement of words with such heartfelt authority. Spend five minutes with “Manny” and it will make sense.
As host sponsor of this weekend’s inaugural Barefoot Classic at the Pentagon, Ohonme’s cause was the backdrop to over a dozen hours of high school hoops. It’s extra appropriate because basketball played such an important role in Ohonme’s own story.
When he was 9 years old living in Lagos, Nigeria, Ohonme was given his first pair of shoes from a missionary. The act of kindness stuck with him, and his talent on the court landed a scholarship from the University of North Dakota-Lake Region in Devils Lake, N.D. From there, he’d earn multiple degrees and a career and would eventually form Samaritan’s Feet.
Basketball was merely the launch point.
“Sports have been a huge platform to help connect people to causes, people to movements,” Ohonme said.
But while Ohonme’s mission is global, he’s proud of the work that’s been done in South Dakota. To that end, over 8,500 pairs of shoes have been distributed in the state since 2012.
“I tell people all the time, I run probably the largest footwear humanitarian organization that has nothing to do with shoes,” Ohonme said. “What we’re really trying to do is inspire hope. To create a vehicle for people on both sides of the washbasins to have their life transformed.”
Not a wasted word there. The effect is to change the lives of the people serving as much as the people being served.
That’s been the experience for Scott Nagy, South Dakota State’s veteran men’s basketball coach who has been involved with the cause since 2009. Nagy found out about it all through then-IUPUI men’s basketball coach Ron Hunter. Nagy was later introduced to Ohonme, and the barefoot brand has grown ever since.
“I honestly feel like I’ve benefited more from it than I have helped,” Nagy said. “To wash someone’s feet is very humbling. To have your feet washed is very humbling. It’s a very intimate thing to have someone wash your feet, touch them, and be able to show them how important they are — when a lot of people don’t feel important.”
At a high school game in 2013, coaches from Roosevelt and Lincoln — Lee Taylor and Jeff Halseth — were talked into coaching barefoot. Halseth donned the bare feet again Saturday against Sioux Valley. His Patriots won, so who knows if it catches on for him on a game-by-game basis.
“This is an especially good cause because there’s people right here,” Halseth said. “I like the cause. I like the purpose behind it and I believe in the purpose behind it.”
For Nagy, there’s no mincing exactly what that underlying purpose is. For right or wrong or reasons indifferent, speaking publicly about religion and faith is closer is often perceived as misconduct. Nagy isn’t shy.
“It’s about glorifying Jesus Christ,” Nagy said. “That’s a mission that’s most dear to my heart.”
That calling is no different for Ohonme or for Denise Blomberg, Samaritan’s Feet regional director, whom Nagy credits with expanding and improving the operation in South Dakota. But Samaritan’s Feet is an inclusive operation. The people they serve — predominantly children — come from plenty of different ethnic, cultural and faith backgrounds.
Blomberg said the communities being served in Sioux Falls are diverse.
And for newcomers, the message is the same.
“We’ve got refugees coming into our communities. What if we can welcome them in this country?” Ohonme said. “Provide them shoes. Show them love. Show them kindness. Remind them that they’re dignified and they’re special. Not just touching them but looking them in the eye.”
That level of intimacy isn’t without its discomforts. But listen to Ohonme. He’ll tell you to power through that part.
“When you get that close to anybody, you get a little uncomfortable,” Ohonme said, “but in that uncomfortableness there lives the true transformation.”