Coaches lose shoes for a good cause
INDIANAPOLIS -- Ron Hunter sat in his office Wednesday afternoon, staring into his inbox on a blinking computer screen. As has been the case for the past year, most of the messages were about shoes.
One Thursday evening in January 2008, at the request of Samaritan's Feet, Hunter spent a game walking the sidelines without shoes or socks to raise awareness for a charity which collects shoes for impoverished children around the world. It was a simple act, intended to generate 40,000 pairs of sneakers for African children to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's death.
But the gesture's effect resonated and rippled outward from Indianapolis -- national media coverage and word of mouth helped the organization collect more than three times the expected haul, which was redistributed in Africa and South America last summer. All because a college basketball coach spent a game last season without wearing shoes.
"What Coach Hunter did that day was an enormous blessing to our organization," said Samaritan's Feet spokesman Todd Melloh. "A coach is one of the most respected positions in this society; people look up to them and follow their lead. So when a coach decides to perform an act like this, it shows that this powerful platform can be used to reach those who are less fortunate."
When Hunter takes his shoes off again, for the Jaguars' Jan. 17 conference home game against Centenary, he won't be the only one. Samaritan's Feet reports that over 300 coaches nationwide -- from Division I to high schools to rec leagues -- will take their shoes off for a game at some point during the coming week. The charity's goal for this campaign is to bring in 1 million pairs of shoes from coast to coast.
"This was always bigger than just me," said Hunter. "Todd and I went to the [National Association of Basketball Coaches] last summer, and we recently sent out a video to every coach in the country showing how to do this. It's been wonderful to see so many of my colleagues choosing to join us and do this, to help us reach our goal."
One of the coaches who heeded the call was Matt Brown of Summit League foe Missouri-Kansas City, who will expose his toes during his team's Jan. 17 game against North Dakota State. Fans who bring a pair of new shoes to the game will receive a pair of lower-level seats.
"I read a lot about Samaritan's Feet after what Ron did last winter," said Brown. "I have a very young family, we have six kids. I can't imagine the idea that there are families in the world that can't afford shoes for their children. I wanted to help however I could."
And the offers of assistance aren't just coming from the basketball community. The Jaguars' bench boss receives e-mails from representatives from other sporting communities hoping to help.
"I've heard from people involved in soccer, football, hockey," said Hunter, ticking off sports with his fingers. "Here's the really crazy part everyone has different twists they want to add. I heard from a swim team that wants to put their shoes on for a meet! I'm telling you, this whole year has been really unbelievable and overwhelming."
But with the success stemming from Hunter's simple act of unselfish shoelessness comes an unforeseen issue.
"A year ago, Samaritan's Feet didn't have enough shoes," said Hunter. "That's less of a problem now. With a million pairs of shoes potentially coming in, it's a new kind of question how do we get a million pairs of shoes to the kids who need them?"
In Charlotte, Emmanuel "Manny" Ohonme is contemplating that very question and preparing for the charity's new math.
A Nigerian native, he received his first pair of shoes at the age of 9 from an American stranger and used them to begin building the basketball skills necessary to earn him a full scholarship from the University of North Dakota. Ohonme later left a high-paying executive job and dedicated his life to Samaritan's Feet, helping ensure that the generosity that set him on his path is repeated over and over. Hunter's involvement has helped that life-changing script play out hundreds of thousands of times.
"It's phenomenal how much this has grown in the last year," said Ohonme. "That one coach could help raise over 140,000 pairs of shoes shows how one man can make a difference, that one man can help give a voice to thousands of voiceless children around the world. Now imagine hundreds of coaches unified towards that same goal."
Hunter's two hours without shoes resulted in an avalanche of leather, rubber and canvas, and the upcoming shoe drives in gymnasiums nationwide mean there's a lot more coming. In the past 12 months, the operation has struggled to keep up with the complex logistics of redistribution -- incoming shoes must be organized by gender and size, catalogued and stored. Then they're sent by truck, boat and airplane to final destinations around the world.
"That's a testament to the heart of the Hoosiers," said Ohonme. "Throughout this whole process, people in Indiana have shown that their level of generosity is as high as their love for basketball."
But Samaritan's Feet will still require plenty of additional resources to handle the upcoming inundation and has put out the call on its Web site, www.samaritansfeet.org. Ohonme is seeking transport partners, an army of volunteers to help with cataloguing and distribution, and tens of thousands of square feet of warehouse space in California to store hundreds of thousands of shoes -- mainly so that the charity doesn't have to bear the unnecessary cost of sending shoes raised in drives on the West Coast all the way to Indianapolis or Charlotte.
"Getting the shoes is only the beginning of the process for us," Ohonme explained. "There are a lot of opportunities to help out in other ways, and we need more help."
Even as large as the operation has become in so short a time, the end result is still the same small and humble transaction.
"The children line up and each puts their feet on a sizing mat," said Hunter, who travelled to Peru last summer with IUPUI assistant coaches and players to distribute shoes. "A volunteer marks the correct size on the child's hand, and then they go on to the place where they receive shoes and socks. We carefully wash their feet, then put the socks on, then the shoes, and spend some time with them we aim to show them that they're loved and cared for."
According to Samaritan's Feet, there are 300 million children worldwide who lack shoes. With the expansion of the campaign into many different parts of the world, the charity has given participating coaches the opportunity to choose where the shoes they collect go to, even including American destinations. UMKC's Brown has chosen to send the shoes that his school raises to locations in West Virginia.
"It's not an urban state," said Brown, who previously spent five years as a John Beilein assistant in Morgantown. "There's a level of poverty in West Virginia that's just heartbreaking. There are plenty of kids who need shoes domestically as well."
And for at least one head coach, the charity's global reach hits a chord that's very close to home.
South Dakota State's Scott Nagy, like Brown, didn't know about the organization until Hunter brought its mission to the nation's attention in January 2008. But when Hunter asked the coaching community for help last summer, Nagy was one of the very first to contact Samaritan's Feet and sign up. When he paces the sidelines in his bare feet on Jan. 23 against rival North Dakota State, many of the shoes generated by the Jackrabbits' drive will go to Haiti, the birth home of his 5-year-old adopted daughter, Naika.
Three years ago, as part of a 10-month adoption process, the Nagys traveled to Haiti, where they met Naika for the first time at an orphanage and witnessed the world she was born into -- a country with a long history of political instability, guerrilla attacks and uprisings that had been battered by Hurricane Jeanne and unmanageably high food prices shortly before their arrival.
"It's an endless war zone, poor people on top of poor people," said Nagy. "The poverty there is unimaginable. It's really important to me that a lot of these shoes we collect go there."
While Nagy already has a first-person encounter with devastating poverty, Hunter is hoping that some of his shoeless colleagues accompany him on future trips to distribute shoes and see for themselves the positive effects of their actions during the coming week.
"My next step is to find volunteers, 10 coaches who will come with me," said the IUPUI head coach. "I want to bring them to a place where they can look in a child's eyes and see the direct impact of what they're doing, by going shoeless for a game and being a part of this."
And Hunter, who made such a trip last summer, is driven forward by his memories of his trip to Peru.
"We'd get there at around 5 a.m., and there would already be lines that would go on forever," Hunter recalled. "Families, children, for miles. And we'd have around 20,000 pairs of shoes. Inevitably, it'd get to be afternoon and we'd run out, so it'd be time to go. But those lines would still be there, and everyone who was still waiting would be crying when they realized what was going on.
"That's the reason I will never stop doing this as long as I live. We'll never have enough shoes."
Kyle Whelliston is a contributor to ESPN.com.