North by Northwest: A Mile In Your Shoes, Samaritan's Feet
photography by Milton Dodd, Jenny Fitz and courtesy of Lifetouch and Samaritan's Feet
Nearly 300 million people go without shoes each day, not by choice. Nearly 1 million die each year as a result of foot-borne illnesses that may be preventable by simple protection.
From the dream of a Nigerian boy who received shoes at age 9 to a reality of sharing this life-changing gift with others, Manny Ohonme started Samaritan’s Feet.
“The unique aspect [of our organization] is that volunteers wash the recipients’ feet before giving them the new shoes, but it’s not about the shoes,” said Graham Gibbs, director of development-corporate and donor relations. “It’s about one-on-one interaction with another human being with the hope of inspiring them, just like one missionary from Wisconsin inspired an African child.”
After receiving his first pair of shoes, Ohonme was introduced to basketball. He received a basketball scholarship to a school in North Dakota and eventually earned an executive position in a leading technology company. Despite his American dream success, he couldn’t forget his heritage, so he left his job and started Samaritan’s Feet in 2003 out of his garage. His mission: put 10 million shoes on 10 million children in 10 years.
A surprisingly similar story happened in northwest Arkansas. Gibbs went to Africa on a company-paid mission trip with Samaritan’s Feet in 2009; it completely changed his life. A year ago he left his corporate career in Supply Chain/Logistics, where he’d been for more than 20 years and has worked for Samaritan’s Feet since.
“I read a book, Whole In Our Gospel, by the CEO of World Vision, and he talked about success versus significance,” Gibbs said. “I’d had success, so I decided I wanted to do something a little different.”
Gibbs’ job is focused on finding donors and partners in the Southwest region, largely in Arkansas. Though he’s raising funds for the international business, he’s also making a difference in Arkansas communities with shoe distributions. He currently has two Back to Basics events in August, a national back-to-school distribution event, sponsored by First United Methodist in Bentonville and City of Refuge in Fort Smith.
In 2011, 54 Back to Basics events were conducted in 47 different cities impacting 27,000 recipients. There are a growing number of children in the United States who either do not own a pair of shoes; are wearing shoes several sizes too small; or are wearing shoes that have lost all integrity.
“Almost 50 percent of money raised goes to provide shoes to people in the United States,” Gibbs said. “It’s crazy — the need just in northwest Arkansas. We’ve partnered with Shiloh Christian School for the past two years and easily register 300 to 400 kids at each event.”
The focus of the event isn’t just giving the shoes, but the foot washing. This intimacy is where the “magic happens,” Gibbs said. While the volunteers wash the kids’ feet, others retrieve their shoes from the room of donated shoes and shoes from the company’s proprietary brand.
“There’s a religious connotation that comes with washing another’s feet, but there’s also humility and servant leadership, and that’s a very unique way to express that,” he said. “I was looking to do something significant in my life. For me, that’s helping others.”
This month, Gibbs will walk a 10k in memory of what he saw in Africa: people having to walk more than five miles for water. His campaign “One for One Million” is in honor of the 1 million people who will die this year from foot-borne diseases. Though his fundraising goal is to raise a minimum of $40,000 through this event, he also hopes to start a social movement.
Samaritan’s Feet looks for partners for sponsorships and events from businesses, churches, individuals and athletic organizations. Gibbs works with coaches and student athletes across the country, most recently working with the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAC) on a national level and at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
“Businesses sees it as service opportunities, churches sees it as outreach and athletic organizations see it as opportunity to model servant leadership,” Gibbs said. “There’s a secular interest in having a culture of service within your organization.”
For more information, log onto Facebook and search for Samaritan’s Feet Arkansas or log onto samaritansfeet.org.