Toe to Head

* Support A2S by using the code “A2S” to purchase a ticket to the 7th Annual A2S Game at Davidson College on February 21 against Fordham at 7 p.m. Email gwen@a2sfoundation.org for information on our group package, which includes a game ticket and t-shirt for $16.

About 10 years ago, it was apparent that I had been “lifted from grass to grace” when I first set foot on the beautiful Davidson College campus as a freshman on the basketball team. I am a child from Nigeria that came from the most improbable circumstances and had a rare chance to gain a quality education at one of, if not the most, prestigious liberal arts institution in the country. In all my time at Davidson, I formed amazing life-long friendships, found the woman that would eventually become my bride, made the Elite 8 with my team in 2008 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2009. All of these amazing memories not only help shape me into the man I am today but they also helped provide answers to my life’s most pressing question — the same question I asked myself when I first walked into Belk Arena, “Why me? “Why was I chosen to be lifted from grass to grace?”

I was not the most talented Nigerian. When I started to learn how to play basketball in Nigeria, I was not the most talked about kid. In fact, no one really thought much of anything about me. But somehow, God chose me from the lot. I did not start finding answers to the “Why me?” question until I realized how many shoes I could finally have. Answers from an idea that helping a fellow youth with a pair of shoes could help uplift them. Answers that I had been uplifted from grass to grace so that I can extend grace to others and uplift them as well. I remembered the youth at home and how a pair of shoes was a luxury. I remembered how a new pair of basketball shoes could cost a parent their one-month income.

The first few years my teammates supported me, and I took a couple of bags filled with shoes back to Nigeria to help out the struggling youth. My senior year still remains one of the most significant years of my life. In 2009, the whole Davidson Community rallied behind me and created the “Kicks from Cats” Andrew Lovedale shoe drive that helped raise over 10,000 pairs of shoes and $15,000. This kid that was barely talked about had been raised to raise others.

While distributing shoes in Nigeria in 2009, some of the team members that travelled to Nigeria and I became more convicted and more determined to be a vessel of hope. To be a voice for sustainable change. To love as we have been loved. To extend grace even as it had been extended to us. We realized that the world’s needy needed shoes to move from point A to B and to live another day or even a few months but also realized that they needed to be empowered to make their own shoes, move their families forward, be agents of positive change in their country and engage in sustainable ways to make this world a better place. To do this, I could not give them any less than I received. To do this we had to be a consistent feature in the lives of these kids. It could not be a one and done deal. It had to be process until we help them create a their own Access to Success. To do this we had to empower them from toe to head.

It is 2015 and so much has changed since 2005. Davidson is no longer in the Southern Conference but in the buzzing A-10. The student body is nearly 2,000, up 400 from when I was there. Students who were freshmen when I was a senior graduated three years ago. I am married. I am retired from playing professional basketball thanks to the knee injury that turned out to be a blessing. I now work with Access to Success full time.

A2S was formed in 2010 with the mission to empower youth and their communities to achieve positive change through Christian-based athletic and educational opportunities. From distributing thousands of shoes in 2009, we now have a year-round after school program in Nigeria that caters to 130 Nigerian children every day. Our annual programs reach 3,000 youth every year. In 16 months, our feeding program has provided over 35,000 meals. We have awarded over 30 scholarships with three of our kids currently studying in the U.S. We have distributed athletic and educational supplies worth over $60,000. Each child at the after school academy receives over 580 hours of instruction each year. Through our programs, children are safe, off the streets and spending time constructively after school.

Much has changed at Davidson, in my personal life, and in A2S’ approach to service, but nothing has changed in the commitment of Davidson College to ensure that children like me who are born into improbable circumstances have a chance to dream irrespective of location. For the seventh straight year, I will return to Davidson for the annual game that supports our work in Nigeria. Many will ask “Are you collecting shoes?” or “You are the shoe guy right?” I will relish those moments and celebrate the opportunity to respond, “Yes, I am the shoe guy, but I am also the from toe to head guy.” I will always stand at that spot near the entrance of the arena where I first asked that question, “Why me?” Except this time, thanks to Davidson College and a host of great supporters, I will have some answers.

My answers will not be in who I am today or what I have accomplished in my personal life. My answers will not be in the most difficult times of my life when I walked long distance to find water, burned candles late at night to study with no hopes of electricity, watch three daily meals disappear from the table after the loss of my father or having to watch my mother sell her precious jewelries just to help me gain an education. Those moments have all shaped me.

But my answers will be in knowing that Jafar, a two-time MVP of our free annual basketball and empowerment camp, once received a new pair of shoes from me but also now studies at Liberty Christian Academy in Virginia. My answers will be in knowing that Uche Ufochukwu, a 6-foot, four-inch girl grabbed from the streets by A2S staff in Nigeria, once received a pair of shoes from me and is now a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. My answers will be in knowing that Uche Gift, who came from one of the most terrible slums in Lagos, Nigeria, once received a pair of shoes from me and now studies mechanical engineering at the University of Benin. My answers will be in knowing that Peace Otumu, a three-year-old whose father could not pay for her to go to school, learned how to read and write at the A2S After School Academy and also once received shoes from me. Once we enrolled Peace in formal schooling, she came out top of her class.

My answers will not be in numbers, they will be in stories. My answers will not be about impacting space but about impacting lives. At the end of the day, why choose me if I will only give less than I have been given? I am learning to give more, because in giving more, I find answers to life’s most pressing questions.

Thanks to all who have supported us over the years. Thanks to Davidson College for all you have given and continue to give me. I hope that you can join us on February 21 at Davidson College. They are a fun team to watch. What better way to spend your Saturday than pre-gaming with us as your hear about our work. Join myself and Dr. Ken Menkhaus, professor of political science at Davidson and A2S board member, in the 900 room of the Alvarez Student Union at 5 p.m. for a great conversation about A2S and our work together. We get to have fun, celebrate service and give back all at the same time.

A2S board member Kim Cook sent me a newspaper article recently about Henry Williams, a former professional basketball player now turned minister who is overcoming adversity every day. I draw strength and conviction from his final words in that column. “My life is about a few things I have done well. I picked the right school. I played the right sport. I married the right woman. I have my faith. Those choices got me to where I am today.”

And might I add, I was lifted from grass to grace from the soles of my feet to the crown of head and I am humbled that I get to live a life trying to fulfil God’s plan for me doing the same.

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