If you meet Gina Harry, you’ll feel a sense of alertness and awareness in her – as she silently communicates with the world around her, understanding it and being at peace with it, without actually saying a word.
Gina expects nothing from the world yet she wants to give a lot to the world.
She is the Managing Director of Hands of Love, a non-governmental organization that has for more than a decade, dedicated itself towards making the world a better place for the under privileged and physically challenged.
Sitting on a plastic chair in an uncompleted building which she, her 28 year old son, and a handful of staff have converted to a primary school for children from indigent homes, Gina tells the story of her journey through life as she tries, in her own way, to make the world a better, happier place for those who have less than basic.
A call for the greater good
Gina had a Christian show on the now defunct TV station, MBI and she went on to start another TV show Hands of Love, where she publicised the plight of the less privileged.
“The Voice of the Voiceless,” she called it. “Hands of love is not about religion, It’s an NGO.”
Gina has worked with widows, underprivileged women, handicapped persons, but she says that children are her passion.
“All of my life, it’s always been about underprivileged children,” Gina says, “I just believe that it’s my assignment here on earth, and my mission.”
Gina has always had a thing for education; to her the best legacy you can give a child is an education. “Educating a child, alongside skill acquisition, is the best gift you can give a child.”
A combined incident saw Gina packing up her television show to pursue child education.
One day, the floor of the recording studio, where her equipment and every other thing was stored, gave in and the place flooded with rain, damaging her cameras and everything. It was practically like starting afresh.
“Maybe it was meant to break us,” Gina reminisced. It didn’t. Instead it strengthened her resolve; and so she plunged into her school project, placing her other charitable projects on hold.
“If we had waited to get everything sorted out, raise the necessary funds do it the way we wanted to do it, we will never get to do it.”
She found an empty property in an underdeveloped community in Ajah, and began her school on January 12, 2015.
Gina, who was born to an Igbo father from Anambra state, has a foreign accent which she says is a product of her years of travel and schooling in Europe. She pronounces her words richly and slowly, enunciating each syllable of the word, which makes her accent grow on you.
She says that she has been making a conscious effort to “Nigerianize” her accent so she can relate better wth parents of her students, even going as far as learning Yoruba and teaching herself Igbo. Gina thinks little of pidgin English, but overtime she took it upon herself to learn how to speak it so she could communicate better with the underprivileged persons she works with.
Her demeanor is unpretentious and open, without being assuming or arrogant. If anything she was laid back and almost slow to react without inquiring first. Gina is a fighter and a person whom people follow because she commands loyalty, respect and deep love.
Gina is also a stickler for specificity –evidenced in how she asked for further clarifications on open ended questions.
In 1997, Gina and her family were involved in a car accident which left her in a hospital with a damaged leg. She was told that her right leg would be amputated but she placed her hope in God, believing that she would walk with both her legs.
Almost twenty years later, Gina, the fighter, walks with her two legs, albeit slowly and with a great deal of pain. But that hasn’t stopped her. Perhaps her accident pushed her further into her charitable acts.
Even while on a wheelchair, and later clutches, Gina traveled into the swamps and ghettos of Lagos. Where she could not go, Gina insisted that she be carried, wheelchair and all.
“I know Ajegunle, Markoko and all the rest of them like the back of my hands.”
Nigeria’s education problem
An estimated 10.5 million Nigerian children are out of school.
Children of primary school age (6 – 11 years) account for about 4.7 million of the total out-of-school children in Nigeria.
Nigeria, alone, accounts for 47 percent of the total number of children that are out of school anywhere on earth.
Young Leaders Academy (YLA)
Gina says her education program, founded under her Hands of Love NGO, is aimed at raising leaders from the cradle, giving them an extra touch that normal school will not.
“Our dream is to have proper classes,” Gina says, “We don’t really have much. So whatever we have, we put into book, into this: the children.”
YLA, by all standards, is a school for indigent children. The school sits in an uncompleted building, its floor un-cemented, dust rising as the children shuffle around. The narrow compound wherein the building is situated is flooded by the early morning rain.
“The children have a hard time coming in. when the weather gets like this, we build wooden bridges so the children can cross. We don’t allow them to put their legs in water and when they do, we wash their legs with dettol and water –or salt and water, if we can’t afford dettol,” Gina says.
She fails to mention her health condition or how she has been sick with malaria for the past few days. Her son, a Pastor, tells me later that when the rain comes, like it did that morning, Gina has a hard time entering the school with her injured leg.
In the beginning
Speaking of the beginning, she says, “it was amazing; we didn’t know that we were going to find a lot of children that were unschooled. We had children trooping in. We had even more than a hundred. At a point we had to turn some back, because we lacked the space. There’s no need taking in children and not having enough space for them or enough capacity to teach them properly.”
Using woods, Gina had raised a building. A sister came and put up ceiling in the building for them, free of charge.
A few months later, just as the term was rounding up, Gina was paid a visit by Omoniles, who came with a bill of N5 million. She couldn’t raise the money.
On the final day of the term, as the children were collecting their results, the Omoniles returned again, ready for a fight if the money wasn’t forthcoming. Despite her injured legs, Gina says she would have gone on her knees to beg the leader of the violent group, but the man took pity on her.
“Really, we were lucky. They were ready to bring down the building if they didn’t get the money.”
A landlady in the area offered Gina the use of an uncompleted building –where the school is now located –about twenty minutes drive from the original site. At the beginning of the year, Gina moved the school into the uncompleted building, losing some of her old students in the process.
“I fund from my own personal account, what I had before. Now, my children -my sons-, my siblings, my church, and my friends contribute. I told everyone in my family that they are a part of Hands of Love. The party that we’ll have tomorrow was actually put together by my family, they brought the funds. I said to them ‘everyone should give a minimum of N1000 a month.’ They really bought into the vision of the school.”
Gina has faith and strong will. She wants a bus that will convey the children to and from school, and to find permanent and comfortable classrooms for the children. But she doesn’t know how she will get them, somehow, she believes she will get it.
“Basically, I don’t know how the school has been running; it’s not as if we have this amount of money with us. We just went with our faith.”
How the school operates
“It’s a normal school. We stop at primary four.”
The school is deliberately using the same scheme with Corona International Schools, setting the standard high for the children.
“Two wealthy women brought their children here, never mind the environment, but we had to turn them back because we don’t want to lose focus. We didn’t come here for the well off.”
Gina explains that the payment is in two categories: for orphaned children or those whose parents are out of job, it’s completely free. For those whose parents have jobs but are still living beneath the poverty level, the school charges them N100 a day, that’s N2000 in a month.
Asked how she knows which parents are working or not, Gina says that her NGO is “servicing the community. We go over there, it’s our village. I know the homes of most of the children. And I visit their homes.”
And even if the parents refuse to pay, the school will not send the children away.
The NGO is going beyond just educating the children; they organize skill acquisition programs and leadership training for the parents. Gina says that it won’t make sense if the children spend half of their day in school learning and go back home to an unhealthy environment.
So, in addition to teaching the children to be leaders, Gina trains the parents too, making them better leaders, helping them see the world differently.
Gina is a pastor too, but she says that she is focusing her attention on the school for now, putting her pastoral mission on hold.
“This is my mission on earth,” she says of her school.
She, however, insists that her school isn’t religious. Muslim and Christian students all come to the school to learn, and she tries not to force her religion on anyone.
A child, probably less than 2 years old, walks into the classroom where we sat, behind him was a horde of other pupils, standing by the door, eyeing me shyly. Class was over for the day and they had come to wish Gina goodbye.
And I as whipped my phone out and asked for a selfie, they swarmed me, making squealing noises which attracted other pupils.
Gina beams with smile as the children surround her later for a picture, her face barely showing, her glasses skewed.
One could tell that this was what she lived for, the knowledge that they loved her as much as she loved them.
As they make to go, Gina calls one of the pupils back, a girl. Her name is Azizaat, she appeared to be about ten years old. Her sandals, dusty from walking on the un-cemented floor, were torn and less than wearable.
Gina instructs her to met one of the teachers who will take her measurement so as to buy her a new pair of sandals. Azizaat scuttles away, with an excitement pregnant with anticipation.
“Azizaat is a Muslim,” Gina tells me.
Another child, a girl, runs in to give Gina a hug before running home.
“My love,” Gina said to the girl as she patted her hair. And as she makes to leave, Gina tells her: “Go straight home, Okay?”
“Lovett?” I asked my host.
“Yes, that’s her name. And she’s very loving,” Gina said earnestly
Gina says that the NGO bought the uniforms and the sandals which the children wear.
On the teachers, Gina disclosed that the least educated of her staff has an SSCE, she encourages –if not insists- that her staffs continue their education from wherever they stopped and if possible get a Masters or PhD.
She says that she wants to see people around her succeed, to reach their potential. Full of pride, she tells me about one of her staffs who is doing well at the National Open University of Nigeria.
“We make sure we pay the teachers. We can’t owe them. But we pay them very little, because that’s what we can afford. It’s kind of like semi volunteer.”
Gina says that some of the teachers have their children in the school on a scholarship. She couldn’t –even if the situation was dire- collect fees for educating their children, the salary is too small.
“We pay them ten to fifteen thousand,” Gina says, a slight defeat in her voice.
Once Gina had had to let a teacher goal for calling a pupil “idiot”.
“She actually said to the child ‘I will treat your fuck up in this place, idiot.’ I had to let her go. You don’t use the ‘F’ here. You look at a human being, a living miracle carrying the DNA of God, and you call the person ‘idiot’? The children don’t need that kind of negative words or energy around them.”
To punish the children, Gina says she instructs the teachers to send the children to a room, which the children nicknamed detention. The child sits alone in that room for fifteen minutes or more, reflecting on what he or she did wrong, even as they hear other children learning or playing.
“Sometimes, they start crying in the room. It’s amazing but they rarely repeat the offence again.”
If the offence deserves more than a trip to ‘detention,’ the teachers refer it to her son, Pastor, who spanks the children with a short, funny looking stick.
Each morning, the children are made to sit on their chair for thirty minutes, eyes closed and in grave silence, meditating.
“Silent and successful,” Gina calls the meditation period.
Some of them fall asleep in the process, Gina says, but they don’t wake them up. They are made to quietly repeat the words “I’m a huge success,” so as to teach them and positively reinforce in them that they are masterpieces regardless of what the world around them, says.
“Sometimes we project the words using a projector. To inculcate it into them” she says, “it takes time but that they are not stealing is a result of that.”
Feeding the kids
That morning, was the Golden Morn and Milo day.
“A lot of them have not tasted Golden Morn, and we don’t want them to miss that. Next week we’re going to give them cornflakes and pure milk. Tomorrow is jollof rice, turkey and Milo.”
“We buy the Milo. But luckily, two gentlemen came yesterday and they gave us Milo. They gave us two packs of Milo, so we have Milo for this week,” Gina said with a small victorious smile.
Gina says she’s trying to make them know what life on the other side is. She hopes to give them a taste of all this little things. “They know what samosa is now, if you bring it they can identify it.”
“We want to send that example that we can feed the children without charging them. I’m not saying that it is a must to feed them because we can’t really afford it, but we give them whatever we have, free of charge.”
Gina says that she insists that the children should have turkey, even though it will cost her much, but she wants to give them those things that they can’t ordinarily eat.
“They last time we gave them coleslaw they vomited on me,” Gina laughs, “their stomach was not used to it. But we still want to introduce it to them so they can get used to it.”
Skill acquisition and gender equality
Gina says the children are learning how to bake cake. She has concluded plans with one of the parents to come in, at least once every week, to teach the children how to make and braid her.
She points at a table in the corner and says that the children built it from top to bottom. Gina has plans to teach the children more. “We’re hoping to teach them these things so they can go home with it so that anywhere they go, they can make it a business.”
Asked if both genders learn the same skills, Gina says yes, the school do not segregate. Both genders are treated as equal, pointing out that they can be whatever they chose to be in life.
Gina hopes to build a secondary school as soon as the oldest set of children graduate primary school. She prays that they continue their education to the university level.
To her, the mission is not yet complete till the children get to where they are destined to be in life.
And even though she is constrained by physical resources, Gina hopes to see the children become what they never thought they will be. She dreams for them and prays for them, like a mother would.
Young Leaders Academy is temporary located at No. 7 Poutry Farm (Ira Nla) Road, Off Addo Road, Tokunbo, Ajah.
Interested in funding the Young Leaders Academy contact YNaija at [email protected]
Connect with Gina Harry HERE.