Imagine a wide-eyed preschooler hugging a beloved copy of Goodnight Moon asking her father to read it to her one more time or a rambunctious bunch of elementary-aged boys burning off energy in a spirited game of after-school flag football.
Now step back, and look at the surroundings. The little girl’s home is a simple frame structure far from the suburbs; the boys punt, pass and kick on a field where state-of-the-art is defined by a bit of grass and some chalk markings. They are Nigerian children whose lives have been forever touched by Changing Africa Through Education (C.A.T.E), the international division of the Amobi Okoye Foundation, Inc.
The Foundation, established in 2007 by pro football defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, is headquartered in Katy where Okoye lives. Its mission is to provide hope to needy children in impoverished communities through education and community-building. The Foundation also has a domestic outreach program, Kickoff 4 Kids, that operates programs in inner-city Houston, Huntsville, Alabama, where Okoye graduated from high school, and Louisville, Kentucky, where he graduated from the University of Louisville at age 19 with a degree in psychology.
Because it is the home of the Okoye family, C.A.T.E focuses on Nigeria where Okoye was born and lived until he and his family moved to Alabama at the age of 12. The country is, as Henry Dibrell, Executive Director of the Foundation, describes it, “A lot farther away from the United States than a 13-hour plane ride.” Nigerian society, based on its legacy of kingship, essentially lacks a middle class – something the C.A.T.E initiative focuses on changing. It’s almost impossible, as Dibrell observes, for someone to move from poverty to wealth in one giant leap. There are no intermediate rungs to help someone advance. It takes years, sometimes generations of education, hard work and initiative, to progress from a minimum-wage job to the executive suite.
C.A.T.E’s multi-faceted strategy includes programs that are designed to help families and communities meet immediate needs such as clean water, clothing, medical care and education; to teach teamwork, leadership and persistence; and to inspire families and communities to take small incremental steps that can create a thriving middle class in the future. It’s a version of the familiar adage: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” In this case, however, Dibrell points out, “We want to teach them not just to fish, but how to buy the pond and manage it, which, in turn, develops a healthy economic structure.”
The program’s “toolbox” includes hosting clinics staffed by volunteer American health professionals, conducting sports camps where children and their coaches learn the essentials of American football, improving local schools by providing books and supplies and helping parents pay fees. The Foundation goes into areas at the invitation of city, state or township officials who sanction their activities and provide access, connections and security.
Football is an important part of the game plan, says Okoye. “American football has to exist in an educated culture where a combination of hard work, sportsmanship and strategy must be present to succeed. We also recognize that providing kids with a positive, structured outlet for their energy keeps them off the streets, out of trouble and most importantly, in school.” Each C.A.T.E trip to Nigeria includes pro players from all over the NFL – Connor Barwin of the Philadelphia Eagles, James Ihedigbo of the Baltimore Ravens, Frank Okam formerly of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – who conduct youth football and coaching clinics.
In Nigeria, school is “free;” however, parents are required to pay an assessment and provide school uniforms for their children.
But in Nigeria, four walls with the future inside may be just that. Four walls with perhaps a blackboard, maybe some shelves, possibly a few books. But within those walls, eager to learn, is the country’s future.
Schools are “free” in Nigeria, but families are required to pay an assessment of approximately $150 a year (about a week’s salary) for each child to cover the cost of what Americans would consider “givens” – toilet paper, paper towels, basic materials, paper. Children are required to wear uniforms provided by their families. Forget computers; there are rarely even desks. Children can be seen walking to school – there are no bright yellow buses – carrying a chair or small table that will give them something to sit or write on. The room marked “library” is likely to have empty shelves, in hopes that someday there will be books to put on them. A “textbook” may be a well-worn tablet, reused from last year, where a child writes down what the teacher dictates.
Without the kindness of strangers like the Amobi Okoye Foundation, what would the future hold for these children?