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Former Lake Region State basketball player leads nonprofit

DEVILS LAKE--Two basketball shots changed Emmanuel Ohonme's life and in turn, the lives of millions of children living in poverty worldwide. He laughed as he recalled the story of how he won his first pair of shoes as a 9-year-old boy during a ba...

Emmanuel Ohonme, founder of Samaritan's Feet, speaks to children Thursday during a basketball camp in Devils Lake. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)
From left, Emmanuel Ohonme, founder of Samaritan's Feet, speaks to children Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, during a basketball camp in Devils Lake. (April Baumgarten/Forum News Service)

DEVILS LAKE-Two basketball shots changed Emmanuel Ohonme's life and in turn, the lives of millions of children living in poverty worldwide.

He laughed as he recalled the story of how he won his first pair of shoes as a 9-year-old boy during a basketball contest while living in Nigeria.

"To win a pair of tennis shoes was like a car," he said with a smile. "That day I became the first person not just in my family but in my community to own a pair of tennis shoes."

The 45-year-old credits the story, along with his time playing basketball and attending North Dakota and Minnesota schools - including Lake Region State College - for his success in starting the international nonprofit Samaritan's Feet. More than 30 years after the little boy who had never played basketball in his life won a pair of shoes, his organization has delivered almost 7 million pairs of new shoes to children in more than 75 countries across the world and 325 cities in the U.S. He's also worked with world leaders on peace-building missions.

On Thursday, Ohonme and his wife, Tracie, who helped him start the nonprofit in 2003, returned to Devils Lake to speak to children, college students and local leaders ahead of his induction tonight into the LRSC Hall of Fame. In addition, Samaritan's Feet will hand out shoes to children Saturday at Peace Lutheran Church in Devils Lake.

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"That all came out of the Dakotas," he said as he thanked God for giving him a start. "Just think such a solution to a world problem came out of a kid that went to school in North Dakota."

The first pair

To raise money for his family's survival, Ohonme would sell water and soft drinks to athletes who played sports near his home.

"We didn't have shoes," he said. "People that lived in that neighborhood lived on a dollar a day."

One day he saw missionaries teaching children how to play sports, including basketball. The group was offering a pair of shoes to the first child who could make a pair of free throws.

He raised his hand high like all the other children, but he was chosen first to step up to the line and take his shot. Even though he had never played basketball in his life, his first shot went into the hoop.

"The angels were working overtime because there was no way I should have made that shot," he said.

Winning a pair of shoes was like a dream come true for any child in his village. He ran back home so fast that he forgot the water he was supposed to sell. His mother was not impressed, he said as he laughed.

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But that day sparked his passion for basketball, and it changed his life. He dreamed of attending college in the U.S., and out of all the schools, he chose LRSC - which at the time, was UND's Lake Region Junior College.

"I didn't know much about America, so I picked the one with the best brochure," he said of LRSC.

He played basketball on a full scholarship at LRSC, where he met his wife, a Devils Lake native. He then transferred to Concordia College in Moorhead before eventually graduating with a master's degree in agricultural economics and applied economics in logistics and transportation from North Dakota State University.

He later returned to the village where he won his first pair of shoes, only to see more children who were not wearing shoes.

"That's when it hit me: What if I can start something that can help children just like this?" he said.

And Samaritan Feet was born in 2003.

'Answer to someone's prayer'

There are other nonprofits that give shoes to children across the world, but Ohonme wanted his organization to do more than just send a pair of sneakers to children.

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He stands behind the idea that every child deserves a new pair of shoes, but what makes Samaritan's Feet special is the connection volunteers share with the children they help.

Before children receive their pair of shoes, volunteers wash their feet, a humbling experience that has prompted strong emotions, Ohonme said. He recalled watching former NBA star Charles Barkley get emotional as he washed a girl's feet in Atlanta.

"What that did to him I will never forget," he said. "When you see that smile (on children), it awakens something in you. You can't just stop smiling ... because it is such a joy.

"You get the chance to be the answer to someone's prayers."

He wanted to use the shoes as a symbol of hope, but the delivery would be used to show people the true meaning of love and dignity.

"When you touch their feet, you have this amazing connection and you get a chance to look those children in the eyes and ask them what their dreams are," he said.

Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Fargo and Bismarck have played host to these events, and volunteers have included locals and student athletes from UND and LRSC, said Denise Blomberg, the Samaritan's Feet regional director of operations who oversees events in North Dakota. By the end of the year, Samaritan's Feet will have given 3,500 pairs to children in those cities since it began distributing shoes in North Dakota in 2014.

"When we think of kids needing shoes, we often think of kids in Africa," she said. "With shoes being such an expensive commodity, that is an incredible gift that we can give. Everybody deserves a new pair of shoes."

About 65 student athletes traveled in August to Fort Totten, N.D., to hand out shoes to children there.

"And this was before their school year started," she said. "You can imagine being a child, and who do we look up to? We look up to adults."

Athletic heroes

The organization has inspired coaches across the country to coach basketball games barefoot in an effort to raise awareness for Samaritan's Feet and children who may not be able to afford a pair of shoes.

About 2.2 billion people across the world live in poverty and can't afford new clothes or shoes, and more than 1.5 billion people are infected with diseases transmitted from contaminated soil through feet, according to Samaritan's Feet. It's a statistic that prompted Ohonme to come up with the idea of creating a shoe that would fight such diseases.

With a mixture of making shoes, accepting monetary and shoe donations, and traveling to communities to speak about the importance of each child having a pair, Ohonme and his organization are determined to work until there's not a child left who doesn't have new shoes on their feet.

"We want to remind them it doesn't matter what your struggles are. It doesn't matter if you're poor; that is just a current state," he said. "You don't know what you have been created to accomplish. We want to inspire hope and remind children they are our future, and they can change the world."

For more information, go to www.samaritansfeet.org .

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