Brave Women: Febisola Okonkwo is touching lives

Nigeria has one of the highest populations of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in the world; now estimated at 17.5 million, which is 24.5% of all children under the age of 17 years in Nigeria. Amid this is Mrs Okonkwo, a woman who left her banking job to establish Help Initiative/Tabitha Home, a home for Orphans and Vulnerable Children, writes Festus Iyorah.

It was 4pm. About three women seated on a plastic chair were discussing with the Director of Help Initiative, Mrs Febisola Okonkwo, 50,  in her spacious office when school children—about 15 of them, all aged less than 15 clustered her spacious office, genuflecting, prostrating—a sign of obeisance in South west Nigeria.

After the dramatic display of greetings in a Yoruba way, the school children in a warm display of emotion darted forward to receive “mummy’s hug”—which was perfectly executed with smiles and question of “how was school today”

“School was fine ma,” they responded in unison, filing out of her office to their rooms after a hectic day in school.

They are Tabitha Home Kids.

Tabitha home is a care and transitional home for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) who have been either neglected by their parents or don’t have the financial capacity to train their children or children found trolling on the streets alone.

Located at the heart of Ibadan city, Tabitha home is an arm under Help Initiative, an NGO keenly interested in securing a future for vulnerable children and women in the society. It was founded in 2006 by Mrs Okonkwo, an experienced social service entrepreneur.

It all started with…. Mrs Febisola Okonkwo

Mrs Okonkwo, fondly called “mummy Tabitha” by the kids (Tabitha Home Children) had always been interested in caring for people, especially those in dire need as a young lady. Upon graduation from the University of Ibadan where she graduated with a degree in Communication and Language Arts (CLA) she started going into communities to seek those in need, especially vulnerable children who their parents had ostracized due to physical deficiency or orphans who can’t afford basic education.   

Then, she will recommend helpers who are financially well off to pay their school fees, including connecting most of the children with orphanages homes, what she calls “home placement” she visits orphanages home, rehabilitation centers with her husband, family and friends. She continued doing this until 2006 when she started the Help Initiative.

“I was working as a banker before 2006 but I wasn’t getting fulfillment from what I was doing then. Besides, the humanitarian work I was doing at that time was taking my time. So my husband advised me to start a structured NGO. I knew that was God talking to me,” she said adding that she returned to the University of Ibadan for her Master’s Degree in Social Work, in order to have a theoretical and practical knowledge of social services.

“Help Initiative was formed with professionals who are committed to providing for the less privilege. The target populace is vulnerable women, children and young people and our core supports, women empowerment, clothe drive, kids club community,” she told YNaija.

Help Initiative was basically a mouthpiece for the less privilege including women who are not empowered. They also connect orphans and vulnerable children with helpers and other orphanages home until 2013 when they started Tabitha Home and the women empowerment programme.

Tabitha Home: Home of love

Aside the beautiful wall paintings, electronic appliances and the beautiful pictures of the kids hung on the wall at the living room, something interesting caught my interest during my stay there: Tabitha’s ground home rule, positioned below the attractive portraits of the kids.

The first rule reads: “Love is the watchword”

The rule was put into practice during my 7-hour stay at Tabitha home. The kids were clothed in love throughout my stay there. I watched in awe as Mrs Okonkwo, and her team executes the schedule put in place for the kids. “We do our administrative work during the day while we focus on the kids once they return from school,” once they return, we eat with them, help them with their assignments, play with them,” she told YNaija

The kids were given a good treat of rice and chicken, after wards, they moved in group to launder their school uniforms, socks just behind Mrs Okonkwo, office—chatting, singing, jesting, and teasing one another in deep camaraderie.

“I love watching, listening to them, they are smart,” Mrs Okonkwo, said, as we watch the kids through her office window.

Just like a time-table in school or a programme schedule in a radio station, the kids proceed to the next item for the day: School assignment.

Armed with books and red pen, teachers and volunteer had position themselves at different strategic angles in the living room and dining. They tutored the children, helped them with their assignment for about more than an hour.

At night, about 7pm, the children gathered outside—just within the compound for another dramatic praise, worship and prayer session.

The next day was one of the kids, *Issac Olabiyi birthday. Despite my tight schedule, I attended the birthday —just to get a feel of how he will be celebrated.

It turned out great, thanks to Mrs Okonkwo who prayed for him as soon as he came back from school. “Personally, I pray for them, the kids does that too,” she told YNaija.

Isaac celebrated with a big cake decorated with birthday candles. We had plenty jollof rice and drinks too. The love, the warmth, at this point was palpable. They all reveled in the moment, celebrating, laughing as though there are no stories behind the smiles.

But they all have traumatic stories to tell.

Their stories

They are all 25 in numbers and they were admitted into Tabitha home with different but traumatic stories.

“Tabitha home doesn’t just pick up children from the streets. Children are admitted into Tabitha Home in collaboration with Oyo state Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Child Welfare Department” Mrs Okonkwo told YNaija.

She told me some of them are half orphans or full orphans, vulnerable children who have been ostracized from their communities or stigmatized by their own parents because of physical disabilities or children roaming about the streets with no home.

Each of them has a file—which contains important details about them, their school fees receipt, and health reports.

Flipping through their files, she showed me their portraits when they came newly: depressed and emaciated; they were all frowning at the camera but few years after they were placed in Tabitha home they are all looking good and beautiful.   

“When they came here newly, some of them look depressed, with no hope,” she said, showing me their pictures fasten to their files, telling me their stories of transformation.

*Tosin Ajibade, 18, story is caught my attention. Tosin is one of their pioneer children, he came after some missionaries picked him up in Oyo state when he was wandering about with nobody to fend for him.

Tosin mother had left him with their aged father for greener pastures in Lagos. Today, Tosin, the soft-spoken young man said he wants to be a lawyer in the future.

“I don’t want to leave because I have everything I need,” he told me.

How about *Wunmi Adeola? Her mother locked her in cupboard for four days, until the police came to her rescue from where she was locked. She was sent to Tabitha home—now she’s doing great.

The amazing, shocking story she showed me was,*Micheal Babatunde’s, 6, story. His mother dumped him in the streets because he has acute kidney problem.

“We took him to hospital and we were told his two kidneys were not functioning well, at his age he is hypertensive. He’s been using drugs to maintain His kidney. We’re just hoping on God’s miracle over his life,” Mrs Okonkwo told YNaija.

According to a research conducted by Boston University Center for Global Health and Development, Nigeria has one of the highest populations of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) in the world; now estimated at 17.5 million, which is 24.5% of all children under the age of 17 years in Nigeria. This has grave implications for the current and future well-being of the nation.

Moreover, even with her efforts, the light-skinned 50-year-old Mrs Okonkwo has faced myriads of challenges tied to funding of help initiative, payment of school fees.

In Nigeria, NGOs, especially orphanages homes hardly get steady support to fund their project or the needs of the children they are housing, except during special celebration like Valentine’s Day where people troop in to show love and support to the less privilege.

“The challenge we face here is ignorance, people believe that all NGO are not truthful. Funding as well is part of it as people don’t trust NGO. Sometimes we hardly get money to pay for house rent, food, workers salaries and the children’s school fees.”

“Most times I will borrow money from friends and family to pay for their school fees, buy food items and to pay our volunteer’s salary. I get weary most times but I take solace in the fact that there’s transformation, we get to see that in the kids,” she said in a voice laden with concern.

“Mrs Okonkwo is an angel sent from God”

When Help Initiative started in 2006, Mrs Okonkwo, as part of Help Initiative vision started the Help Initiative Women Empowerment Project which is geared towards helping women in communities to know more about medical and productive health, especially family planning,  personal hygiene, business management. They also give startup grants to vulnerable women to start their businesses.

“Its structure more like a university or skill acquisition, they preside over their meeting, while we guide them on what to do,” she said.

“The idea behind this is because when women in the society or community are empowered it will affect the family system positively. They will take care of their family, children.”

They started in 2013, now they have about 25 women who are beneficiaries. One of the beneficiaries, Tawa Oladipupo, 36, told me how Mrs Okonkwo has changed her life since they met in 2013.

“Since I came into this world, I’ve never seen someone like her. After God created the earth, she brought her to this world to be our helper,” she said in her native Yoruba language.

“Through her women empowerment programme my business has grown, I’ve learnt a lot on business education and family planning”

The president of the Women Empowerment Project, Mrs Romoke Isiaq, 47, said “Mrs Febisola Okonkwo is angel sent from God. She’s a priceless mother. She has done many things for me that I can’t forget,” she said in Yoruba, smiling.

PS: The identities of the kids were changed for confidentiality purposes.

Brave Women is’s citizenship series for the month of March. Find more stories in the series here.

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