“If I say I totally understand how I keep my body and soul together, it will be the award-winning lie!” the 28 year old Tolu Sangosanya says, a small smile playing on her lips. “I do whatever my hands find to do and I do it well but I have learnt that what I do isn’t my source of supply; God is.
“At the time I left school, I was making (a) substantial amount from making cloth for ushers and modelling and I thought all I had and make is as a result of my effort and hard work, but I was wrong; I was so wrong! God showed me why I shouldn’t be proud and consider others less than myself. I have dined with poverty and it has taught me humility, respect for others, value of money and improved my general character. I have been without food before, eating only bread and ‘pure water’ for my main course and drinking my tears as my dessert for complete five days.”
These were the results of a choice she had made: a choice to pursue a burden in her heart. “Everybody is waiting for somebody to do something anybody could have done but nobody did,” she says. “So I decided to wait for nobody but be that somebody. I want to live a life of influence, be a change agent, be a great ambassador for God and also leave behind a positive name for my unborn children and the generation after them. The fear of death is the beginning of living for me and life holds no meaning without giving!”
So she established the Love On The Street (LOTS) Foundation – a non governmental organisation that gives street kids a new lease of life.
“When I started LOTS charity foundation, I only wanted to feed street kids, show them love, care and give them attention and at the same time make them feel special,” she says. “So I didn’t need a lot of money. The first event I had for street kids in 2006 took all the money I had saved from modelling for that year, but since then and with the growth of my work, I have had to employ the help of others.”
Friends, family and well-wishers were the first set of people to donate money, resources and other materials and even help her with basic survival (she has a long list of friends, adopted sisters and aunties to thank). Then a few corporate organisations including FSDH Asset Managers and XYZ group in Chevron Nigeria, and NGOs like Link-a-Child and Olive Leaf charity foundation, funded by the USAID.
What drives her passion? “In primary 2, while I attended St. Mary primary school, I was the first position from behind in class.” She explains. “I was in the 25th position out of 25 pupil in class thus I had to repeat the class (she went to at least six secondary schools after repeated failures). I had the first degree of examination fever. All of my failures were boiled down to the fact that I couldn’t read. I was an educated illiterate. It took years for me to succeed academically.
“While all these were happening in my life, I thought God was being mean to me, but until I saw kids from the Dustbin Estate do badly in school academically and cannot read also, then only did I understand what and why God made me go through what I did while growing up. I can better relate with these kids because I have felt their pain too. I have been laughed at too. I have been considered without hope too. So I can better represent them because I know where the shoe pinches.”
The Dustbin Estate children are not your average charity mission. The estate, in the Awodiora area of the popular Ajegunle, is slum on steroids. It is a frightening cluster of wooden shanties that are built – smack! – on top of refuse dumps.
It turns out that the whole area was one big swamp and landowners had to fill the land with at least 10 truckloads of sand to be able to build. Unfortunately, none of them had the money for this, and so the idea came to fill the land with refuse.
Obviously, there are many problems that residents have to face, including health, but the children are Sangosanya’s focus, including “some who cannot pronounce their own names even when there are in Primary 3, or a three-letter word correctly.”
LOTS teaches the children how to read and write, feeds them twice every week, gives health care and takes them sightseeing. Indeed, her work is not about taking clothes and food and posing for pretty corporate communications pictures once a year. This is as rugged as it gets.
Sangosanya has been known to warn friends against volunteering to teach her students if they cannot get their hands (and legs) dirty – literally.
“Educational level or experience is not a criterion for working with LOTS,” she explained in a recent interview. “Rather it is the passion and loyalty to the cause that makes one qualified. You have to be passion-driven to want to teach children that will stay on the floor in the dump without a roof over their heads; come rain, come sun.”
The graduate of Mass Communication from the Olabisi Onabanjo University has taken this as her life’s mission. Indeed, she handled the organisation for four years without allowing herself a salary from the funds raised. This, despite the fact that the initial rush of corporate funding soon dried up.
“Majority of our funding and cost of running now comes mostly from individuals and whatever I can do as an individual to raise money. I do product modelling, clean event places during, before and after events, sell anything and everything opened for sale, the only option of fund raising I haven’t done is professional begging on the street,” she says.
“By the beginning of 2010, I started receiving an allowance of 10,000 naira only from the company monthly (which is not regular, depending on the funds available). I still sell Nigerian lapel pins, clothes, do modelling; in fact, if I package you well, I will sell you also!” She adds with a hearty laugh.
Thankfully, it’s not for nothing. LOTS can now, amongst other successes, boast of teaching up to 75 kids – 2 – 14 year olds on the average – how to read three-letter words.
But the challenges are huge, and they go beyond funding. “Next to it is the lack of competent hands to work with, (people) who are not money-driven but passion and purpose-driven,” she says. “Followed by the lack of proper organisational structure so as to be able to compete internationally and thus get more support, partnership, and donations. On the other hand, a new challenge is out now; the perception of people who run NGOs is as bad as the perception people in the world have about Nigeria and Nigerians and this affect the smooth running of the organisation.”
So why is she still doing this? What’s the catch?
“God the creator of all things knows what we were all created for and thus wired us accordingly to fit the exact purpose for our individual creation,” she says without hesitation. “I was wired to be bold, fearless, self-motivated, and stubborn and given the ability to withstand pressure without breaking. In summary, I am dogmatic and tenacious!”
Sangosanya is the first child of a in her family. She got her secondary education at the Lagos State Model College Igbonla, Epe, Lagos State before going to the university in Ogun State. She also has a diploma in public relations from the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations, has an advanced course certificate on Leadership from the Daystar Leadership Academy and has just finished a first-of-its-kind social sector management course with the Enterprise Development Services centre of the Pan African university. “I have moved from being an educated illiterate to (a) knowledge-drunk fellow!,” she says, laughing.
For her however, none of these certificates will take her away from the urgent call of the streets. “I have taken a look into my life in 52 years, by then I would be close to 80 and I have imagined what I want my grandchildren to say about me,” she says. “I want my autobiography to read and show the people whose lives and destinies I have been able to affect for better. I do not want to be remembered for my beauty, intelligence or material wealth.
“A lot of people will live on this planet and after they die and are gone, nobody would remember they ever passed through the face of this earth. Frankly speaking, I do not want to be among those people and experience has taught me that people do not get remembered after death for being the richest man or woman on earth, people live after they are dead for the influence they have in other people’s lives. People do not care how much you know, they want to know how much you care. I decided to live my life intentionally, a life of purpose and a drive towards benefiting not just myself but others.”
Still, despite the resolve and the passion and the breakthroughs she has made, this tough woman finds her heart broken again and again.
“I have cried when the ‘area boys’ in the Dustbin Estate came to me to request for money for helping the kids since they assumed I was making money through my work,” she says with visible pain. “I cried because Nigerians have so lost their belief in each other that they do not think anybody can help them genuinely.”
She has cried “when my family did not give the support I needed because they assumed I was wasting my life by deciding to focus on helping others instead of building wealth for myself. They think my work is not supposed to be done by me but the government.”
She has cried “when I see a 15-year-old in Primary 2 who still cannot pronounce two-letter words after even being exposed to LOTS literacy class.”
She has cried “when I speak to my peers and they do not see how the present condition of life of those kids in the Dustbin Estate will affect them adversely if nothing is done to help them now.”
But this winner of The Future Awards 2010 for Best Use of Advocacy based on her impressive work has no intention of stopping anytime soon.
“I have been crying,” she says in a low, firm voice. “And it looks like my tears would not stop running for a very long time.”
To help Tolu’s work:
LOTS Charity Foundation
GTBank, Ajah, Lagos
Account name: LOTS
Account Number: 2276513535110