Peter Eke, an Eastern Oregon University senior from Nigeria, did not travel light when he returned to his homeland last summer.
Sixty-two youths from poverty-stricken families in Nigeria can attest to this.
Eke arrived with seven bags containing 62 pairs of basketball shoes donated by Northeast Oregon residents. Next Eke put his best foot forward. The 6-foot-7-inch EOU student-athlete distributed all of the shoes to the most needy attending a free basketball camp he was putting on. Almost all had never worn shoes before.
The youths seemed as excited as fans who had just seen their favorite college team win a national title on a buzzer-beating shot.
“They were ecstatic, incredibly happy,” said Eke, one of at least 400 students who will receive diplomas Saturday at EOU’s commencement.
Eke, who performs acts of charity like this through his organization Dreamers Without Boundaries, will be at it again in August, delivering dozens of shoes to youths attending his basketball camp in the state of Ebonyi in Southeast Nigeria. This time he will also be giving T-shirts and more to the children attending from poor families.
Such acts of generosity by Eke are not a surprise, according to EOU men’s head basketball coach Carlito Labarda, Jr.
“He has the most gracious heart I’ve ever seen,” Labarda said.
He said Eke’s selfless nature personifies altruism.
“I am more proud of him than any of my players because of what he does to help others. It is the ultimate (kindness) to help others who can’t help you back,” Labarda said.
Eke teaches youths in Nigeria about much more than basketball. He also talks to them about how important it is to learn to love rather than hate. The importance of developing a conscience and learning the difference between right and wrong are also focused upon.
Eke also addresses misconceptions about life in the United States. He said many young people in Nigeria believe that in the United States, everything is given to you.
“You have to work for everything you want,” he tells the youths. “It is not peaches and cream.”
Eke said he is inspired to reach out to his homeland because he sees his reflection when he looks out upon young boys in Nigeria. He explained he was once a barefoot boy attending a basketball camp in his country run by Masai Ujiri, who is now president of basketball operations for the 2019 National Basketball Association champions, the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri, who grew up in Nigeria, gave Eke and many other boys at his camp the first shoes they ever had.
Eke said the shoes he received made a huge impact in the development of his basketball skills because he suddenly had the freedom to play harder.
“I didn’t have to worry about being injured,” Eke said.
Eke’s basketball skills were noticed by coaches with Covenant Christian Ministries Academy in Georgia where Eke went for his final two years of high school to play basketball. He played so well he earned a junior college basketball scholarship at Atlanta Metropolitan State College. Eke later put together a highlight video of his junior college performances and sent it to coaches at four-year colleges throughout the nation including Eastern.
Labarda was impressed with what he saw and offered Eke an athletic scholarship, which he accepted.
Coming to La Grande was an eye-opener for Eke. So much was new to him, including the weather. It was here that he experienced snow for the first time.
“I had never felt cold in that way before,” Eke said.
He has enjoyed his time in La Grande and EOU immensely and speaks movingly about people who have reached out to him. These people include Kris and Dan Martens, who have provided Eke with a place to stay and enjoy meals during holiday breaks when most students have left.
“They have been like a family for me,” Eke said.
Kris Martens, who works at EOU in events and conference services, describes Eke as someone whose lone purpose in life is to reach out to others.
“He is an incredible kid (with) a great heart. His real drive is helping people,” Martens said. “We will miss him terribly.”
Martens said Eke is also an outstanding cook, preparing dishes popular in his country that they found delightful. The family’s favorite is a rice dish called jollof.
Eke will graduate with a degree in physical activity and health with a concentration on exercise science. He wants to become a physical therapist for athletes after leaving Eastern.
Labarda, though, thinks that Eke may have a future in politics because of his ability to connect with people.
“Twenty years from now, he might be the president of Nigeria,” the coach said.
Labarda is struck by how quickly Eke made his presence felt at EOU.
“In two years he has become the most popular person on campus,” Labarda said. “People don’t just like him — they love him.”