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Back2School program brings aid to students
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Volunteer Alexis Waller washes a student’s feet at The Community Fellowship’s Back2School event Saturday. (Bulletin photos by Ben R. Williams)

Monday, August 4, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Area students in need will be returning to school this year with new shoes, clothes and school supplies, thanks to the Back2School initiative, now in its seventh year.

The event took place Saturday at five area churches: The Community Fellowship in Collinsville, The Church at Mercy Crossing in Martinsville, Mt. Calvary Pentecostal Church in Axton, Fairway Baptist Church in Bassett and First Pentecostal Holiness Church in Danville.

Dawn Toole, the event coordinator at Mercy Crossing, said that students entering the church received a free haircut, a new pair of shoes and socks, up to six outfits (some new, some gently used) and a bookbag full of school supplies.

Michael Harrison, pastor at Community Fellowship, said about 1,900 students were registered this year for Back2School, although several participating churches also offered open registration at the end of the day. Harrison estimated that the five churches would serve between 2,000 and 2,100 students by day’s end.

“We’re gaining momentum,” Harrison said. “We’re trying to gain the infrastructure so we can grow more. I think that’s one of the challenges ... you want to get bigger and bigger, but you need to have the proper infrastructure in place. ... We want to do more, and the best way to do more is going to be more partners and more community support.”

Area businesses, churches and individuals make the event possible, Harrison said, by donating their time, money and supplies. The goods that the students receive cost approximately $25 per child, he said, but the value of the items is anywhere from $75 to $125 per child.

Toole, who teaches at Patrick Henry Elementary School, said many in the community have come to rely on the event in order to get their children ready for school each fall.

“I was teaching a summer camp in June,” Toole said, “and a child came up to me and asked, ‘When’s the Back2School (event)?’ It just broke my heart that we just got out of school and (the child) was already worried about, ‘Am I going to have shoes, am I going to have a bookbag?’”

Aside from the haircuts, clothes and school supplies, a striking feature of Back2School is footwashing. Volunteers wash the feet of students before putting on their new shoes, a biblical display that aims to show modesty while serving someone in need.

“That’s an awesome experience for the volunteers as well as the families, just to share a very personal, intimate moment,” Toole said.

A special guest visited the participating churches Saturday: Emmanuel “Manny” Ohonme, founder, president and CEO of Samaritan’s Feet, an organization that has partnered with Back2School for the past four years.

Ohonme’s organization strives to provide shoes to needy children worldwide. On Saturday, Ohonme shared his story with children at the participating churches.

Ohonme said he was born and raised in Nigeria to a Christian mother and a father who practiced animism, the belief that everything, including inanimate objects, has a soul.

While Ohonme’s mother always told her son to believe in his dreams, Ohonme said his father was an alcoholic who took his frustrations out on his son.

One day, Ohonme said, while he was selling water at a park near his home, he saw a group of missionaries holding a basketball competition for children in the area.

The winner, Ohonme said, would receive a pair of tennis shoes.

“In my neighborhood, where people lived on less than a dollar a day, a pair of shoes was like a Mercedes Benz,” he said. “I’d never played basketball before, but that day, I knew a miracle happened, because the first shot I took was nothing but net. ... I became the first person in my family to own a pair of tennis shoes.”

As he was going home, Ohonme said, one of the missionaries stopped him and said to him: “Son, just because all you see around you is poverty, doesn’t mean that the God of the universe has forgotten about you.”

Years later, Ohonme arrived in America on a basketball scholarship and attended the University of North Dakota (which was a little too cold for someone from Africa, he joked). After getting his undergraduate degree, Ohonme went on to receive a master’s degree and entered the field of software technology, becoming a success.

Ultimately, Ohonme’s father succumbed to his alcoholism, although he repented on his death bed, Ohonme said. When Ohonme returned to his childhood home in Nigeria to bury his father, he found himself wondering: “How did you grow up like this?”

In 2003, Ohonme said, he was called by God to create Samaritan’s Feet, so that children like himself could experience the same joy he felt when he received those new shoes.

Because that missionary came to Africa and planted a seed in Ohonme’s mind, he said, “we’ve been able to serve just about 6 million kids in over 72 countries over the world. ... God is doing amazing things. God can take your challenges and turn them into trophies for you if you choose to use that which is given.”

Ohonme, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., said he was impressed by the Back2School program.

“I love how they’ve embraced it and made it theirs,” he said. “You can tell they know what they’re doing. And the kids feel loved.”

To support or learn more about Back2School, visit For more information on Samaritan’s Feet and Ohonme, visit


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