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Cal and the Cats give back for the holiday season (with photo gallery)

Photo gallery at the bottom

John Calipari has often said that he doesn’t think of himself as a basketball coach anymore, but rather a leader of young men.

On Tuesday morning in Campton, Ky., a rural town in Wolfe County, Coach Cal gave his players a different lesson in leadership while giving back to those in need.

Coach Cal and the Kentucky Wildcats joined Samaritan’s Feet at Campton Elementary School to deliver shoes and a message of hope. More than 450 students from Campton Elementary and Rogers Elementary School sat down at chairs in the gymnasium, had their feet washed by the players and coaches, and were given new shoes for the holiday season.

“This is a great experience for our kids and for our staff,” Calipari said. “You reach a level of certain things. Fame is fleeting. Money has wings. But when you’re in a position to reach back and help, I’m just wanting these players to know (that’s what) you do. This is a big day for our basketball team but a bigger day for all these young kids. To be able to put new shoes on their feet (is a big deal), but being that they’re from Kentucky makes it even better.”

Whether it’s things like the UK Alumni Charity Game, the “Rebounding from Sandy” telethon or his foundation, Coach Cal finds ways to give back throughout the year. Tuesday was just another way of doing that during the holiday season, but it was also an opportunity to show his players how to lead.

“If you want to lead you must serve, and the ultimate respect you can show someone is that you wash their feet,” Calipari said. “You’re leading to make everyone else better, to make everyone else more comfortable, to make everybody else feel more secure. You’re trying to create hope for everyone else. That’s what leaders do. And that’s one of my jobs is to teach all of these young men is how to lead.”

The children, who ranged between kindergarten and fifth grade, had the opportunity to talk with the players – the role models and heroes for many of the youngsters – and ask them questions while the Wildcats scrubbed their feet in soapy water and fitted them with new socks and shoes.

John Calipari and his team pose with workers from Samaritan’s Feet, which has helped provide shoes and hope for more than five million children across the world.

Junior guard Jarrod Polson said some of the children were nervous and only asked a few questions, but he was confident the experience made their holiday season.

“I want you to understand that they hold us all in high regard and basically we’re washing their feet,” Calipari said. “That’s powerful, and it’s also powerful for our team to understand.”

Coach Cal started working with Samaritan’s Feet a couple of years ago after hearing the inspiring story of Manny Ohonme, the CEO and founder of Samaritan’s Feet.

Ohonme grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, counting very few things in his possessions, including tennis shoes, hopes and dreams. That all changed for Ohonme more than 28 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.

“What you see going on here is bigger than just providing shoes for children,” Ohonme said. “It’s an opportunity to be able to tell children that they can dream big dreams and they can go pursue whatever it is that God’s told them to go do. It’s exciting to see this happen and we just can’t wait to see what’s going to come out these children some day in the near future”

The goal of Samaritan’s Feet is to put 10 million pairs of shoes on the feet of 10 million orphans and impoverished children across the world. Since 2003, Samaritan’s Feet has been able to help more than five million children in 65 countries and 285 communities across America.

Coach Cal and his team have actively been a part of the effort. Two years ago they washed feet and provided shoes to a community in Detroit, and Calipari donated $25,000 to the non-profit humanitarian aid organization this past summer after the UK Alumni Charity Game.

Calipari said Tuesday’s stop at Campton was just another way to teach his players that they’ve been put in a position to help others.

“I think a lot of the people look at us as role models, so to be able to actually come here and see us in person, it probably makes their world,” graduate student Julius Mays said. “It’s probably an early Christmas present for them.”

Tuesday wasn’t the only day the Cats will be giving back for Christmas. On Wednesday from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., Calipari and the players will be at three different locations in Lexington to collect coats for the Calipari Foundation’s “Cal’s Coats for Kids” drive.

Anyone in the Lexington area that has a new or gently used coat can drop one off at Man O’ War Harley-Davidson or the Wildcat Wearhouse locations at Fayette Mall and in Hamburg. The coats will go to the Salvation Army, which will find Lexington area families in need of them.

Then on Thursday, Calipari and his players will deliver gift baskets to 10 select families across Lexington who could use a hand for the holiday season. The basket will include a gift card from Kroger to buy a Christmas turkey and other food items, new shoes from Nike, T-shirts and sweatshirts from Wildcat Wearhouse, gift cards to Wal-Mart to purchase Christmas gifts for the children, and a check for rent.

Coach Cal has been delivering the gift baskets to less fortunate families since arriving at UK

“Sometimes fate intervenes and puts you in a spot that you’re where you are now, and how do you use that position for others,” Calipari said. “You don’t use it for yourself; you use it for others. You’re just trying to teach these kids that.”

Cindy Richardson, the mother of former Kentucky star and current Charlotte Bobcat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, said her son was always raised to serve others, but his time at Kentucky last season afforded him the opportunity to do more from a position of power.

“I want to thank (Coach Cal) for the community service work that he had his players do when we were there because Michael comes from a family of service,” Richardson said. “Michael and I talked about him one day being in a position to help and what he wanted to accomplish. His thing was he wants people to know him not for just what he does on the court but off the court.”

Richardson said the position Kidd-Gilchrist was put in last year inspired him to continue his charity work in the NBA.

Kidd-Gilchrist actually tapped into Calipari’s charity work with Papa John’s and has instituted a similar program in Charlotte this year. He’s also partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters for an event on Sunday, and he’s donating 125 uniforms and backpacks for a recreational league team on Tuesday night.

“Mike was happy to know that Coach Cal understood the responsibility of service and giving back,” Richardson said. “When you’re a public figure, you’re a role model to so many people you don’t know. It’s not always about the money. It’s about being a blessing to others.”

With experiences like this week, Calipari is hoping this year’s players will gain the same understanding.