Kato, the main character in Alma Fullerton and Karen Patkau’s new picture book A Good Trade, is overwhelmed with gratitude when he receives a pair of shoes. Did you ever wonder why? What makes a pair of shoes so exciting? To answer that question, we’re interviewing representatives from organizations that have devoted themselves to shoes, kids, and changing lives. Today our featured organization is Samaritan’s Feet and our interviewee is Dr. Emmanuel “Manny” Ohonme, its founder.
What inspired you to start bringing shoes to kids in need?
Well, I’m the product of someone else’s generosity. I grew up in an underprivileged country myself; I grew up in Nigeria where people that lived in my neighborhood were living on less than a dollar a day, and shoes were a luxury.
We’ve also learned that over half the population of the world can’t afford shoes, and our conservative estimate is that over 300 million children across Africa and in different parts of the world wake up each day with no shoes. Further research showed that close to a million people worldwide are affected by sole-transmitted parasites. Many of them lead to different forms of infection. Some of them actually lead to death or amputation of feet.
And on top of that we learned that kids in different parts of the world can’t go to school because they have no shoes, and we felt like that was something that was unacceptable. We felt like that we should be able to solve that problem. So we set out with the really audacious goal to go see if we can at least inspire hope and hearts and reach the first ten million [pairs of shoes], and see where that takes us.
That journey started in 2003 and today we’ve helped over 4 million kids worldwide.
Where do your shoes come from?
Our shoes come from a lot of individuals. We only give children new shoes. 98 % of our shoes are tennis shoes and then the other couple of percent are school shoes that are more sandals or Croc-style EPA foam type of shoes. We get them donated through corporations, so we’ve had partners from Nike through Converse, to Sketchers, to Sears and K-mart and Wal-Mart, and different shoe companies are very generous in helping.
Many corporations sponsor shoe drives for us—either physical shoe drives or virtual shoe drives. Those virtual shoe drives allow us to raise funds so we can also procure shoes. We also manufacture shoes so that we can better forecast our needs in terms of gender or size mixes. That’s really grown quite significantly over the last few years with the economy the way it’s been; we haven’t been able to get as many shoe donations as we used to in years past, so now as part of our self-sustaining strategy, we ask many people to actually do virtual shoe drives for us and then those funds are used to manufacture shoes with our branded logo on them, or to purchase shoes from some of our suppliers.
Where do your shoes go?
Over 40% of our recipients are across North America. People always think that most of our recipients and customers are actually in the developing world, but we’ve found over the last four and a half years there’s been a huge increase in demand in North America. We’ve seen families having to make decisions every day: Do I pay the light bill, or buy groceries, or provide shoes for my kids to go to school? We’ve seen many families lose their jobs, so we started our Back to School national program, which this year helped over 50, 000 children.
We help children in over 86 communities across the US and then in parts all across East, West, South and even Central and Northern Africa, and into Eastern Europe, across the Caribbean, and in the Middle East. We span the globe. We’ve worked in over—I think it was 65 countries as of the last count.
Some people worry that an influx of donated shoes can disrupt local businesses and economies. Do you have any measures in place to protect or encourage sustainable economies in the places you work?
Absolutely. In Brazil, for example, all of our shoes are actually manufactured and produced within Brazil. We want a lot of our international locations to be self-sustaining. We want to make sure that the countries support their own, even if there’s such a dichotomy between the Haves and the Have-Nots. The Haves can help provide support to help meet the need of a lot of underprivileged people. We’ve helped blaze a trail and challenged a lot of the well-to-do people to help support them—because a lot of them just don’t know that there’s a need for shoes until we help open their eyes to the realities of people that are suffering because they don’t have any. And we’ve seen that be very successful.
In other parts of the developing world, places where we serve in remote, underprivileged communities, many of those people don’t even have stores, so there’s not even an option of being able to disrupt an economy that doesn’t exist. The other thing that we’re doing is really trying to create jobs. We’re looking for opportunities to actually start making and procuring shoes where they are in some of those local economies. We’ve been doing that quite a bit.
Do you have a favorite story or experience from you work with Samaritan’s Feet that you would like to share?
There are tons of stories. In the Amazon region of Brazil, where we’ve done work for many, many years, we went to this community on the other side of Igarape Mirim. Beyond that is a town called Boi Jadin—it’s actually a fishing community—where many of the folks still trade and barter. The kids have to have at least the equivalent of flip-flops to wear to school. Shoes are part of their uniform, and one of the families when we got into the town—we found out later on the father was praying that he’d have enough of an opportunity to trade enough so he could have the money to be able to buy flip-flops for his four children to go to school that year.
We walked into town, working through their local education program, and provided all of them brand new tennis shoes. And it was amazing—this father was just crying. They brought him to me and we talked to him, and he said, “You won’t believe this—I was just praying that I would actually have enough resources that I could sell enough fish that I could provide my children with flip-flops. And to be able to see my kids get up from the seats out there”—our volunteers wash their feet and put shoes on them and provide them with new socks and a new backpack—“and to see them wear Nike shoes, it seems like they’re walking out with a car.” He said he was watching a miracle happen in front of him. And to me that day that just struck me. Who would ever think that shoes would ever be compared in the same category as a need similar to a car? But to that fisherman that day it was like we’d given his family a Mercedes Benz.
And to me it just reminded me why what we do matters. When we see the faces of these children lining up to receive something that they never thought they could have in their lives… We know we’ve given them good shoes, but the shoes serve as a vehicle for works of affirmation. They encourage children to believe in their dreams, and we’ve seen this come to fruition.
What is your organization’s vision for the future?
We are on a mission to help create awareness, because when we started nobody knew that footwear could be a humanitarian response and meet a real physical need. People didn’t know that people in places like Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, Peru, and Colombia, places like Cameroon, Burundi, and Uganda, are suffering from this condition called Podoconiosis. It’s a non-filarial type of elephantiasis. People didn’t know that people were suffering from this kind of condition because they have no shoes. They didn’t know that over a billion people in the world are affected by ringworms and hookworms that come in through their feet. People didn’t know that in northern Nigeria where I’m from, 40% of school-aged kids suffer from schistosomiasis [a disease caused by parasitic worms that can permanently damage internal organs].
I truly believe we’ve helped create awareness to the need for shoes. I know we’re going to reach our goal of ten million and I think after we do, we’re going to continue with one of the things that we already started doing as part of our sister organization we formed a couple of years ago, the Women Ambassador program. Beyond providing the shoes for kids to go to school, we’re actually in the process of building schools.
We built a school in the Amazon region of Brazil a few years back and now we’re trying to build a school in Burundi. We’ve teamed up with the President and the First Lady of that country. Their vision is to provide access to education to a lot of underprivileged children. During the civil war in that country they had over 300, 000 people assassinated in the genocide and over a million people displaced as refugees. Many people have come back now and education is one of the keys they’re using to unify them. The President has built over 2700 schools so we’ve committed to help keep building schools through our Women Ambassador division. We’re looking at building our first one next year and adding other ones to it as we see that grow.
We see ourselves manufacturing shoes in developing countries so we can create job opportunities for a lot of the underserved, underprivileged people, and so we can also show them that they don’t have to be dependent on the shoes coming from China—they have the resources to make their own shoes and meet their own needs locally. And we’ve started some other social enterprises and we see that growing.
At the end of the day, I think we’ve created a movement now. We have other organizations now helping to respond to the need for shoes. I was telling some of my colleagues in the nonprofit industry just a few weeks back when I was speaking at a conference, I think we should set a higher goal. You know, 300 million kids wake up each day with no shoes. I think that needs to be our goal collectively—that we can all come together and eradicate it, because that’s a problem that can be solved. No child should ever have to die because they have no shoes. No child should ever not go to school because they have no shoes. So I’m taking that as a personal challenge.
Dr. Emmanuel “Manny” Ohonme is the president and CEO of Samaritan’s Feet, which he founded in May, 2003.
This interview has been edited for length.
To learn more about Samaritan’s Feet, visit www.samaritansfeet.org.