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Charly Haley, Published December 07 2012

Nigerian native puts shoes on others' feet

FARGO - In Sunday’s intrastate rivalry game, North Dakota State University men’s basketball coach Saul Phillips will be missing one part of his usual attire.

His shoes.

“It’s not a fashion statement,” Phillips joked in a news conference Friday. “It’s a little more than that.”

As their teams compete, both Phillips and University of North Dakota coach Brian Jones will be coaching without shoes in support of Samaritan’s Feet, a nonprofit organization with North Dakota roots that aids children around the world in need of shoes.

Samaritan’s Feet was started by Emmanuel “Manny” Ohonme.

Ohonme is originally from Lagos, Nigeria, where he was one of many children without shoes.

“Many of the families lived on less than a dollar a day. Kids used to wake up and pray, ‘God, please give me zero-zero-one. It’s OK if I don’t have breakfast or lunch, but please let me have supper.’ ”

Without shoes, children in Africa suffer many different diseases and health problems as their feet are damaged, Ohonme said.

When he was 9, Ohonme won a pair of shoes in a basketball contest held by American missionaries visiting Nigeria.

“I felt like they gave me a Mercedes Benz,” Ohonme said. He was the first person in his family to own a pair of shoes.

Years later, Ohonme made his way to the U.S. for college and found himself in Devils Lake, studying at Lake Region State College.

“I thought, my goodness, I’m moving into a freezer,” he said. “But it was awesome because the people of North Dakota just got around me. I had a place to always go on a weekend. They didn’t make me go hungry. It was amazing.”

Ohonme transferred to Concordia College in Moorhead to finish his undergraduate degree and then completed a master’s degree at NDSU.

Ohonme’s education earned him a technology business job in Charlotte, N.C., but he didn’t forget about the African children growing up as he did without many basic needs – shoes among them.

Ohonme and his wife founded Samaritan’s Feet to raise money and shoes for the children in Africa.

“Samaritan’s Feet started in our garage,” Ohonme said. They raised more than 800 pairs of shoes at the first shoe drive in Charlotte.

Samaritan’s Feet then teamed up with another organization and went to South Africa with about 1,000 shoes. But there were about 4,000 who wanted them, Ohonme said.

“That’s when I realized we were onto something because the need was so great,” he said.

Ohonme never imagined that Samaritan’s Feet would grow into what it is now, helping children in more than 60 countries.

At the NDSU-UND game, fans can donate at a booth. A $10 donation buys one pair of shoes.

People can also donate at www.tiny.cc/coachphillips.

This is Phillips’ second time coaching barefoot for Samaritan’s Feet, and he said it won’t be his last. In 2011, he coached barefoot in a game against Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Phillips said part of the reason Samaritan’s Feet is special to him is Ohonme’s connection to North Dakota. “This is us helping one of our own helping lots of others,” he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Charly Haley at (701) 235-7311