HEART AND SOLE
Elo Edeferioka’s shoe drive part of her personal mission to give back
By Jon Cooper
*This article originally appeared in the 2017 Spring Edition of Buzz Magazine. Georgia Tech women’s basketball will host a Samaritan’s Feet Shoe Drive for the second straight year on Thurs., Feb. 8 when they host Boston College in McCamish Pavilion.
It’s been said “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
Elo Edeferioka would prefer that children in her home city of Warri, Nigeria, not have to experience some of the hardship she had growing up. To that end, as many children as she can are getting to walk -- and run and dribble -- a mile, and more, in her shoes ... and those of her teammates.
For the fourth straight year, and the first at Georgia Tech, the redshirt junior forward gathered shoes, culminating with a collection on Jan. 26 prior to the game with Florida State at McCamish Pavilion. The drive was held in conjunction with Samaritan’s Feet, an organization which has supplied more than 6.5 million pairs of shoes to children in need in 325 cities in the United States and 88 countries all over the world since its inception in 2003.
Samaritan’s Feet became important to Georgia Tech because it was important enough for Edeferioka to mention her shoe drive via a simple picture during a team-building exercise. In the exercise, a player shows five pictures of things that define her life. Her summer basketball camp was one of those pictures.
“It was her day to share her five pictures with the team and the staff, what her past is, her history and where she came from,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “One of the pictures was the kids back home in Nigeria with the shoes on.
“I thought it was really great that there were some little boys there with pink shoes on from the Pink Game that were 10 sizes too big for them,” Joseph added, with a laugh. “They were just so happy to have those shoes. I thought, ‘What a great story.’ But more important, what a great human being Elo is to give back.”
For Elo, which translates to “Light of God,” giving back and just a general unselfishness is part of what made her a perfect fit for Joseph’s program.
“One of the things we’ve always tried to instill in our players here is ‘Basketball is what we do. It’s not what we ARE,’” Joseph said. “One of the most important things we can do is give back to our community. She came here like that, already taking the initiative to give back to her community in Nigeria.”
That sense of perspective can be traced back to her doing whatever it took to play the game she loves.
“I thought the best part of her story was that she walked an hour every day to go to the nearest gym to even try to play basketball,” Joseph said. “She told us about how a lot of times she didn’t have the shoes and the things she needed. It was a very touching story, and I gained a lot of insight about Elo and who she is as a human being. I’m just very impressed by the initiative she took to give back to her community and what she does for her teammates every day. She’s very unselfish. I think Elo is the epitome of what we want our student-athletes to be.”
Edeferioka found her way to the States to play high school ball at Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J. While she became a dominant center, leading the Warriors to a 28-3 record as a senior, averaging 9.0 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.0 blocks, she also started to take advantage of extra equipment that she could compile every year to help the less-advantaged in Warri that attended her camp. That would continue when she went to college at nearby Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y.
“When I was in high school, I would take stuff home,” she recalled. “When I got to college I was getting more stuff, more shoes and everything. I was like, ‘Okay, let me start doing something like this to give back so they can look forward to me coming every summer to bring shoes for them and everything so they don’t have to worry about buying or trying to find money to go buy other stuff.’”
Elo credited countrymen like friend and former Georgetown forward Ki-Ke Rafiu for helping her establish her efforts.
“Ki-Ke does the same thing I’m doing right now,” Edeferioka said. “She goes home every summer to do a basketball camp for the community where she’s from, because she’s from Offa. She goes to Offa all the time to run basketball camps for young kids back home.
“Growing up, I didn’t really have people coming back home to do stuff like this for me,” she recalled. “I had the opportunity to travel to all those camps that they were doing in other states. So I thought, ‘What if I do something in my state for my fellow basketball players that are struggling also?’ I was like, ‘Okay, I can start doing stuff like this.’”
After two years at Hofstra, she transferred to Georgia Tech. While NCAA rules forced her to sit out a year, there was nothing to prevent her from continuing her shoe drive. She quietly gathered shoes last year and brought them home, but it was this season and the five pictures that led to the shoe drive.
“Coach Jo, my teammates, the coaching staff and (women's’ basketball director of operations) Catherine Greene have really been supportive of me,” Edeferioka said. “When they found out about my idea, they organized the shoe drive for me.”
This year’s drive collected nearly 80 pairs of shoes.
“That’s a great number, and those shoes will go to a great cause in Nigeria,” said Joseph, who, along with Florida State head coach Sue Semrau, coached the Jan. 26 game in their stocking feet as part of the Barefoot Coaching Initiative, part of Samaritan’s Feet.
Elo’s teammates also have gotten firmly behind her efforts.
"Being from another country, and learning about Elo's childhood, I know this is an important cause for her,” said senior forward Katarina Vuckovic, one of three women’s basketball players on the Student-Athlete Advisory Board (SAAB). “She's always done this on an individual level, but by partnering with Samaritan's Feet, we were able to expand the scope of those that benefitted.
“I'm so glad my teammates and I were able to use the platform of basketball to support Elo and raise awareness for her home country,” Vuckovic added. "I'm touched by the warmth, generosity and spirit of the people here who donated shoes and were inspired by the sense of hope the shoes will bring to the people of Nigeria!"
The support from her teammates didn’t end on Jan. 26. In fact, it’s still on-going.
“My teammates have been giving me shoes,” Edeferioka said. “Since then I’ve had teammates telling me, ‘Oh, I have shoes at home,’ ‘I called my mom, they’re going to bring shoes so I can give them to you.’ Coach Jo has really been a big part of this because she was the one that brought up the idea for the shoe drive and how they could get me more shoes. She’s really been supportive of me.”
Edeferioka is determined to expand the drive and plans on looking to the rest of the Georgia Tech athletic community for support. She’ll get plenty of help spreading the word from Vuckovic, as well as junior guard Antonia Peresson and junior forward Zaire O’Neil, also members of SAAB.
“What I want to do is go talk to all the sports,” she said. “Talk to other athletes on campus.”
Edeferioka is determined to continue expanding her program and keep it thriving and giving back to her country’s youth even after her college days are done.
“Since I’m still in school and with the basketball season and classes still going on, I can’t really start up anything yet,” she said. “I know at some point I’m going to create a foundation, a non-profit organization where I can collect shoes and basketball stuff and go home to run basketball camps every summer. That’s something I’m going to do after college.”