NASSAU, Bahamas — John Calipari’s hope in taking his players to do a community service activity with Samaritan’s Feet in the Bahamas was to teach them about servant leadership and provide them with a firsthand lesson in what they can do to help others in the position they’re in.
“I want to have an impact 10 years, 20 years, 30 years from now,” Coach Cal said. “Many of the players I’m going to coach are going to come across fame and fortune. What do you do with it? Do you make your life about yourself and how much you can grab, or do you make your life about everybody else?”
Calipari wasn’t sure if that light bulb of a lesson would click on in his players’ heads as they washed the feet of Bahamian children on Wednesday, gave them new socks and shoes, and sent them home with a bag of goodies. But then, right before the UK’s staff’s eyes, one of the players demonstrated the message was getting through.
Nearing the end of their work with Samaritan’s Feet, Karl-Anthony Towns realized they had run out of new socks to give a little boy. Rather than send him off without a pair, Towns had a better idea. He flipped off his sandals, took off the new socks he had put on his feet an hour ago, and rolled them up the boy’s ankle.
The little boy, size 20 socks rolled up nearly to his knees, smiled back at Towns.
“You know these guys, and many of them come from different backgrounds,” said Manny Ohonme, the CEO and co-founder of Samaritan’s Feet. “To see people like them say, how can I actually participate and help and inspire these kids and lift them up to do great things, I think this is one of the best days I have ever seen.”
The purpose of UK’s basketball trip Wednesday and the overall mission of Samaritans’ Feet is to provide children in need with some essential supplies, to inspire them and to give them hope to dream big, which Samaritan’s Feet has been doing for years now. In its goal to put shoes on the feet of 10 million orphans and impoverished children across the world, Samaritan’s Feet has been able to help more than six million kids in 65 countries and 285 communities across America since 2003.
Calipari, his program at Kentucky, and his foundation, the Calipari Foundation, have played an instrumental part in that mission over the last five years, doing similar service work in Haiti, Detroit and in Kentucky.
But for everything the Bahamian children got out of Wednesday’s experience, the Wildcats may have received just as much. It wasn’t just Towns giving up his socks or the act of washing a child’s feet; it was the genuine sense of joy and appreciation the players got out of the Samaritan’s Feet shoe distribution that made it such a positive success.
“These young men have changed,” Ohonme said. “You see the smiles, the joy. You think the young kids are the only ones smiling? Check out the faces of the young men and you can see them changed and transformed.”
It changed their perspective.
“It’s humbling,” Andrew Harrison said. “It actually makes you want to drop a couple tears because you see all these kids and then you think about what we complain about every day. It just makes you think about what you have and what you’ve been blessed with.”
Before walking into New Birth Church in the outskirts of Nassau, Bahamas, Calipari spoke with his team about the symbolization of washing a child’s feet. He told them that it wasn’t just about giving a kid a much-needed new pair of socks and shoes; it was about the act of inspiration.
“You’re talking about kids that need hope, that need a hug, that want to be cared about,” Coach Cal said. “Like, we care enough to ask you questions about you. We’re going to give you a hug. We want to know about you.”
The players followed his lead.
Derek Willis recalled talking with a young boy named Brian. The little boy, like so many of the kids the Cats interacted with Wednesday, was shy at first, but after Willis asked him a few questions, he opened up and talked about what sports he plays, his brothers and sisters, his family, and his interests.
“He was so amazed that somebody stopped and took the time to ask him about his day and about what’s going on with him and his interests,” Willis said. “He was smiling the whole time. It was the coolest thing ever.”
Kentucky’s involvement with Samaritan’s Feet is no coincidence. Calipari has been teaching his players about servant leadership since he arrived in Lexington in the spring of 2009. Samaritan’s Feet reflects those same values.
Its leader, Ohonme, grew up in Lagos, Nigeria with very few things in his possession, including tennis shoes, hopes and dreams. That all changed for Ohonme more than 30 years ago when a stranger from Wisconsin befriended him and gave him a pair of shoes.
Ohonme, then 9 years old, said the shoes sparked hope and inspiration. He eventually went on to compete in sports activities in Africa before earning a scholarship in America and founding Samaritan’s Feet.
“The bigger picture is to realize that they can all make a difference,” Ohonme said. “I mean, look at my life. Somebody gave me a pair of shoes over 30-something years ago never knowing that today would be impacting millions of kids around the world. … That decision to help somebody can create a ripple effect that will last forever.
“What these guys are starting to do here will begin something in their heart and their spirit that will say, I have a responsibility to give back and to serve my fellow humanity. And because of my experience at the University of Kentucky, we can do great things to change the world.”
The work Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did with Samaritan’s Feet inspired him and led to his current position as one of the leading NBA spokesman for Samaritan’s Feet. Just last week he washed the feet of children and donated shoes before kids went back to school.
Calipari is hoping his current players gain the same type of understanding and become servant leaders like Kidd-Gilchrist in the future.
“I may only have a guy for one or two years, maybe three or four. But what if I have him for one year? What have I taught him walking away that can help him in other areas?” Calipari said. “Fame and fortune don’t create joy. What creates joy is when you impact other people and see that it has an impact and you influence them in a really positive way and you know you had a part in that unbelievable joy. Gathering toys, wanting to be in the center as far as all the fame and all the shine, (it makes you) empty. It’s trying to get them to understand the feeling of giving, the feeling of serving, the feeling of deferring to other people so that they can shine.”
Video is courtesy of Kentucky Wildcats TV