Counting To Zero
The mission of Samaritan’s Feet is to create a world with zero shoeless people. In September, the organization worked towards that goal by “counting to zero” in two different communities: Perry County, Tennessee and then just a week later, 5,856 miles away, in Agbetikpo Village, Ghana just a week later.
Both distributions were historic as people in two entire communities received a pair of new shoes. Although the day looked different in Tennessee and Ghana, both were filled with warm welcomes, joyful expressions, and above all, hope.
Experience the days we counted to zero in Tennessee and Ghana:
Beautiful green fields on rolling hills surrounded the 30 mile drive along Interstate 40 to get to Perry County, Tennessee. Nestled beside the Tennessee River, Perry County is considered a “distressed county.” By definition, it ranks among the 10% most economically distressed counties in the United States, based on their three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rate.
“After talking to the Perry County mayor, he shared with us that a lot of what they focus on in their community are issues around children and families. So we thought the shoe distribution in that county would be a perfect fit so that families could send their children back to school with a new pair of shoes,” said Tennessee First Lady Maria Lee.
Thanks to the generosity of First Lady Lee and her initiative, Tennessee Serves, every student at the four schools (one high school, one middle school, and two elementary schools) in Perry County would receive a new pair of shoes. The exciting day would begin at Perry County High School with a celebration of those students.
High schoolers, middle schoolers, and faculty filed into the gym, proudly adorned with black and gold banners of championships past. Seated on the bleachers, they listened intently as First Lady Lee and Tennessee Governor Bill Lee warmly welcomed the students to the special event and emphasized the importance and impact of service and showing kindness to others to the students. They then introduced Manny Ohonme, Co-Founder of Samaritan’s Feet, to share his story with the students.
Students were silent and focused on Manny as he shared how he grew up in Nigeria, didn’t have a pair of shoes until the age of nine, and how that gift changed his life.
“Students can easily get discouraged about their life’s circumstances. Manny’s story is a powerful message to let those kids know that the challenges they face don’t have to define them or hold them back. Hope is a powerful force. And I think it can change the outlook and outcome of a child’s life,” said First Lady Lee.
After listening to the impactful story, the students were ready. The faculty lined the wall. Local and state government officials attended in support of the day. Community volunteers were out in full force. They dispersed to all the schools, eager to share shoes and hope with the students. All of Perry County was ready.
Students from the high school and middle school were served together. Governor Lee, First Lady Lee, Samaritan’s Feet Co-Founders Manny and Tracie Ohonme, along with volunteers kicked off the day by passing out Hope Totes, which contained their new shoes, to the first class of students.
Just a few steps away, a team arrived at Linden Elementary where the energy was high, the laughs were loud, and the smiles were big. Students had their feet washed and received encouragement and several fist-bumps just before getting their new pair of shoes.
“Our students were so excited to get new shoes. All we heard yesterday was ‘we get our shoes tomorrow, right?’ This has been awesome for all of our students. A lot of our kids don’t have good shoes, so this is a blessing to our community,” said Angie Williams, Principal, Linden Elementary.
The final team traveled the short distance to the last school, Lobelville Elementary. At Lobelville, children could be heard saying things like “these are the fastest shoes I’ve ever owned” and “I’m going to jump, jump, jump” as they raced and ran in their new shoes.
It was evident this was an extraordinary day.
“Service events bring a community together. People want to be seen, and an event like this lets them know they are seen and not forgotten. We hope this is a catalyst to propel children and families forward and encourage them to keep going,” said First Lady Lee.
For the approximate 900 students in Perry County, this would be a memorable day. Not only did the leaders of their state humbly serve them with incredible kindness, they received a new pair of shoes, something that teachers say many of them have never had before.
And in just a few days, the same special day would be recreated over 5,000 miles away in Ghana. “It is remarkable that a need being met in our state is also being met across the ocean. Whether you are in the Tennessee or in Ghana, there are opportunities to serve those around you,” said First Lady Lee.
In honor of these historic events, Governor Lee prepared a proclamation for the Agbetikpo Village marking September 17 a day to celebrate them and the shoes Samaritan’s Feet distributed that day.
The team bus moved slowly down the bumpy clay road, as puddles and holes were scattered as far as the eye could see. The metal roadside shops became fewer and were gradually replaced by tall green grass and an occasional farmer selling watermelon.
The faintest sound of drums began to fill the air. The beats became louder and louder—the team had finally reached Agbetikpo Village.
As the bus pulled next to the yellow and brown Agbetikpo D/A Basic School, the five drummers started a new song to mark the team’s arrival. Three tents faced the school; underneath two, the village Torgbui (Chief) Phillip Kugah, elders, and women gathered. The remaining tent shaded chairs awaiting the Samaritan’s Feet team.
Following traditional greetings, the team first met the Torgbui Phillip Kugah who was wrapped in beautiful blue and white fabric, then waved to elders, and then to the children sitting on the school steps.
It was time for the team to take their seats—the village was ready to begin the program to welcome the team to their community.
The village prepared a beautiful program to express their excitement and gratitude for the 1,000 pairs of shoes Samaritan’s Feet was to distribute that day. It included music and dances, an opening prayer, welcome addresses and speeches, and then a drama the students had prepared to show the effects on a child’s education if they do not have proper footwear. The play began with shoeless children saying “everyone started laughing at us because we have no shoes, so we did not go to school,” but ended with the children receiving shoes saying, “I am happy because I can go to school tomorrow.”
Music continued to play, and the team was handed bright Kente Cloth to wrap around themselves. They made their way towards the dancers and joined them in learning the dance they had so beautifully performed all morning.
The team then presented the Proclamation from the Governor and First Lady of Tennessee to Torgbui Phillip Kugah and in return, he gave us a pair of his old shoes as a symbol of both what he was previously wearing and his gratitude for the new shoes.
“Think about the village we served—the chief was present, the whole community was there and you could see togetherness. Because of the shoes, everybody came together. That unity and love speaks so much to what Samaritan’s Feet does,” said Matthew Atokple, Founder, Feed the Generations, and Samaritan’s Feet Ghana Host.
It had been a fun morning, and the fun would continue as the shoe distribution began under one of the shaded tents. Torgbui Phillip Kugah was served first, along with the the elders, and they graciously accepted their new shoes.
People of all ages had their feet washed—from tiny toddlers who had to be helped into a chair to elders who slowly walked up with a cane and were also assisted into a chair. Every single one of them received a pair of shoes.
“[Samaritan’s Feet] got to do a lot of firsts on this trip; this was the first time we went to this village and served a Chief and it was the first time serving an entire village,” said Christina O’Conner, Ghana Team Member.
Boxes of shoes were constantly being replaced as the line of community members continued to flow into the distribution. Children trickled in with eyes wide open as they carefully watched the team serve their friends.
“This is a very special day. We have a population of over 300 students in the school. This is a very poor community, so we are very glad to have this donation. Most of the kids are wearing slippers or nothing at all. We are very grateful you are here,” said Prosper Korsina, Headmaster, Agbetikpo D/A Basic School.
Children and adults stood up from the chairs where they were being served with smiles filling their faces. They clapped with joy and eagerly showed off the new shoes to those standing near them.
“As much as the material things are able to help them with their daily lives, they are also receiving love, emotional encouragement, and so much spiritual encouragement,” said Atokple.
Just behind the distribution area, children could be seen running and playing with friends, all in their new shoes. It was a sweet moment of pure happiness.
“Imagine a school girl or school boy trying to walk to school without shoes—the discrimination and the emotional and psychological effect it can have on that child. So, when a child has a pair of shoes, it can allow the child to be very confident and say ‘hey I’m going to school now and I’m complete.’ It gives them self-worth,” said Atokple.
Samaritan’s Feet thanks Tennessee First Lady Maria Lee and Tennessee Serves for sponsoring the 900 pairs of shoes distributed in Perry County and thanks Sanford Health for sponsoring the 1,000 pairs of shoes distributed at Agbetikpo Village.
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