South Charlotte

May 31, 2009

Some big shoeboxes to fill

An unmarked warehouse on the edge of an industrial park seems an unlikely place to change children's lives.

But step inside Manny Ohonme's 5,000-square-foot office, and you can see how it's going to happen. Thousands of shoes are stacked high in rows of boxes, awaiting delivery to some of the world's littlest and poorest feet.

This is the home of Samaritan's Feet, a charity that has gained international acclaim for its relief efforts in countries around the globe. The group moved last summer from Charlotte to Indian Land, just east of Fort Mill.

“A lot of people don't know we're here,” Ohonme said of the Indian Land headquarters. “People know us more nationally than locally.”

That could soon change. Six years after he founded Samaritan's Feet, Ohonme is gearing up for his first project in South Carolina, a back-to-school campaign that aims to deliver shoes to as many as 46,000 needy children across the state. York County will be one of the leading participants.

Many people may not recognize the group by name, but they might remember flipping on ESPN last year and seeing University of North Carolina men's basketball coach Roy Williams coaching a game in his bare feet.

It was an idea that came from Ohonme, who convinced 1,000 high school and college coaches to ditch their loafers in a show of support for the cause.

Inside a warehouse off U.S. 521, volunteers from area churches and civic groups show up at designated times to unpack shoes, remove the paper stuffing and load up containers.

Container ships and cargo planes carry the shipments to countries such as Malawi, Nigeria and Indonesia.

The local United Way is helping set up S.C. distribution locations next month in Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Clover and York, where volunteers will hand out shoes and wash the feet of children in some school districts.

The drive comes at a critical time for parents struggling in the bad economy, said Diane Wells, community resource coordinator for United Way of York County.

“If I can get my child in new shoes, then I can use those funds to buy groceries or pay utilities,” Wells said. “A lot of our clients are going from agency to agency looking for help. That's one less worry they have.”

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