Ron Hunter isn’t a hero.
What Ron Hunter is, is a basketball coach, and a smart one, who knows that he can use his role as a public figure, and as a leader, to create change.
Which is why, when friend Todd Melloh, now Director of Marketing for Samaritan’s Feet– an organization which collects shoes for the approximately 300 million children worldwide that have none- approached Hunter asking for help a little over a year ago, the head basketball coach at IUPUI (Indianapolis University, Purdue University of Indiana) jumped at the opportunity.
On January 24, 2008, Hunter coached IUPUI’s match-up with Oakland University barefoot, raising awareness for the organization which was started several years ago by Manny Ohnme, a Nigerian born, American educated man, who didn’t receive his first pair of shoes until he was 9-years-old.
With Hunter’s help last winter, over 200,000 pairs of shoes and $30,000 cash were collected. Hunter, Melloh and several IUPUI players and staff hand delivered those shoes this summer during a trip to Peru, where young children were not only shoeless, but lived in communities without electricity or running water.
Despite seeing the impact he made, Hunter realized how much work was left to be done.
“When we left Indianapolis to go make this trip, I felt great that we were helping people,” Hunter told media members in a Tuesday afternoon conference call. “But when I got there, and at 5 a.m. every day there were thousands and thousands of kids lined up to receive those shoes, and we couldn’t help all those kids, I felt really bad about it.”
Upon returning to the United States, Hunter knew that raising awareness for Samaritan’s Feet wasn’t a one time thing, but a lifetime commitment.
“When we left (Peru), I said, ‘I wish we had a million shoes,” Hunter said. “Although it was a successful trip, what bothered me more than anything was the number of children we left absolutely devastated we couldn’t help.”
With those images seared into his memory, Hunter will again patrol the sidelines barefoot, coaching this Saturday, January 17 against Centenary College. His new goal: to raise those one million shoes, which mean more to the children than just clean and dry feet.
“The shoes represented two things,” Hunter said. “For most of these kids, the shoes were a form of transportation, they don’t have cars, bikes or public transportation, so their feet become their way of getting around.”
Beyond that, the coach added, “It was almost a symbol of hope. It wasn’t about the shoes, but about letting a 5, 6 or 7-year-old child know that somebody cares about them.”
The campaign is picking up steam, as hundreds of coaches nationwide, from the youth level all the way to Division I have pledged to go barefoot. Melloh said that over 30 coaches decided to join the cause just this past Monday and Tuesday alone. He and Hunter both agree that the stage a coach has, can help public perception about a cause.
“When you’re a coach, high school, middle school, college whatever, there’s a certain amount of respect that coach has, and parents and players have that (respect),” Melloh said. “So these coaches use their platform to make a difference in the lives of others. And they’re teaching their kids there’s more to life than just basketball.”
Another trip is tentatively scheduled for the summer to distribute shoes in South Africa, with Hunter being joined by several fellow Division I coaches. Of equal importance, Hunter and Melloh agreed that a certain amount of effort should be focused domestically, as America’s economy continues to struggle.
Two distributions have been set up in Indianapolis for Martin Luther King Day, Monday, January 19, which President elect Barack Obama has declared, “National Day of Service.” Hunter and Melloh have agreed to set aside 10,000 pair just for the state of Indiana.
With only a few days before the big event, there is much work to be done. Hunter will appear with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels Friday morning – barefoot of course- and still has to prepare his team for its game against Centenary, as IUPUI looks to make its first NCAA Tournament since 2003.
Hunter said that since the game last year where he went shoeless, not a day goes by that he doesn’t receive shoes either at his home or office. “Honestly, this has become kind of a full-time job for me.”
One he doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.
Photo Credit: ICON Sports Media