Global non-profit founders grateful to visit home

Harry Lipsiea Journal Reporter
Area volunteers helped more than 250 Lake Region children receive new shoes Saturday at the Samaritans Feet Back to School event at Peace Lutheran Church. Members of Lake Region State College basketball and baseball players helped work the event as well as volunteers from Dakota Prairie Community Action Agency and Peace Lutheran Church.

Driving down College Drive in Devils Lake Saturday morning, positive memories came rushing back through Manny Ohonme. The native of Nigeria always enjoys visiting the community he called home for more than two years.

"I had goose bumps when we turned onto College Drive," Ohonme, who attended Lake Region State College in 1989 and 1990, told the Journal during an interview. "Such a special place. Every time I come back here, I am reminded of so many positive memories."

The community was the sight where Manny and his wife, Tracie, a Devils Lake native, met, began dating and later became engaged. They now have four children, Nike, Dele, Yemi and Wale.

"It is awesome to be back home," Tracie, the daughter of Gordon Elfman and Vickie (Gefroh) Hanson stated. "I always enjoy coming back seeing family and friends. It's a great place."

Not only did Saturday mark a special homecoming for the married couple, but it was for a first-time event in the Lake Region. Manny and Tracie oversaw the distribution of 250 pairs of shoes to area children in need.

It's a cause that the Ohonmes have built their life around. In 2002, they founded and formally launched Samaritan's Feet as a worldwide non-profit organization.

"Our mission at first was to somehow distribute 10 million pairs of shoes to children in the world," Manny told the Journal.

Samaritan's Feet is well on its way to a goal that many would find unachievable. The organization is anticipated to distribute its six millionth pair of shoes sometime this December in 32 countries.  Through their cooperative work with thousands, Samaritan's Feet has built positive relationships and received support from state, national and international political leaders.

In addition to its “Back to School” events, like the one held Saturday at Peace Lutheran Church in Devils Lake, Samaritan's Feet has become well known for its Barefoot for Bare Feet initiative. The program features high school and college basketball coaches raising funds and awareness for Samaritan's Feet and the need throughout the world.

"It's been absolutely incredible," Manny stated. "As a little boy in Nigeria without shoes, I don't think I could have ever imagined doing something so big."

Meanwhile Tracie doesn't know if she saw herself founding a global non-profit organization, her current role isn't entirely surprising either.

"I remember writing an essay as a senior in high school talking about that it was dream to be a business owner and help people," the graduate of Devils Lake High School stated.

Ultimately, the success of Samaritan's Feet has a lot to do with the couple's experience in North Dakota.

"The reason I am at this place in my life is because Lake Region State College took a chance on me," he stated. "They believed in me and gave me the opportunity to receive a first-rate education."

After having correspondence with school and athletic officials at Lake Region State College from his home in Nigeria, Ohonme received a scholarship to play basketball for the Royals.

Thousands of miles from his family, Manny soon made a second home in Devils Lake. Not only was he a member of the Lake Region State College hoops team, but he also participated in student senate and was a top-notch student. He is also quick to admit that he was the Snow Daze king.

"I never once felt homesick. There were so many kind and friendly people. Whenever I am in the area, I know I will never have to get a hotel room. So many people have opened their homes to me through the years," he smiled. "Lake Region State College and Devils Lake will always be apart of me."

That is why Saturday was so special for Manny and Tracie. More than 50 area volunteers gathered helped distribute shoes to 250 pre-registered children in need. Working together were individuals from Lake Region State College, Dakota Prairie Community Action Agency and Peace Lutheran Church.

It is a special event that took the hard work and effort of many.

"It is just incredible to be part of this kind of event," Danny Mertens, Lake Region State College athletic director, commented.

Royal basketball and baseball athletes volunteered during the day.

"I think for me the most special part of an event like this is how people and organizations come together," Tracie stated.

Manny added, "I can't tell you how proud of this community and college I am. To see people in Devils Lake and at Lake Region State College rally around this cause brings joy to my heart. I carry them both with me wherever I go"