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Success starts at home (part 2) -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Success starts at home (part 2)


Lucy Okonokhua Jackson and her five future academic superstars, circa 1997. ©Habitat for Humanity International/Ben Skudlarek


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‘Something special about this family’

The Okonokhua family moved into their new home on Feb. 17, 1997. News footage from that day shows the family dressed in brightly colored Nigerian garb, smiling as Lucy tells a reporter, “This feels like heaven on Earth.”

Their move-in got more than the usual amount of media attention because theirs was the 100th Habitat house built by AFC Enterprises, the parent company of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen. Frank Belatti, the company’s founder and then-CEO, took an active role in the construction process, spending several Saturdays working on the roof.

Belatti still remembers the first time he met the Okonokhuas, at an event at Popeye’s. Lucy had the children huddled round her, and Belatti bent down to give each a hug.

“Even then, they gave the best hugs,” he said. “It was obvious there was something special about this family.”

After they moved in, Belatti kept in touch, dropping by the house occasionally to check on them and sending presents at Christmas. But he had no idea then how much of an impact he would have on their lives — or how much they would have on his.

Turning the focus on education

Meanwhile, the new home was working its magic on the Okonokhuas.

“The house relieved a lot stress,” Lucy said. “The children could go out and play. We didn’t have to hide from anyone. That was a big blessing.”

Lucy had more energy to focus on her children’s education.

She camped out overnight to win them spots in out-of-district schools. She sought out mentors and enrolled them in after-school programs. She woke them up at 5 a.m. to study in their home library.

“Right from the beginning, everybody shared the responsibility,” Lucy said. “If I’m checking Teddy’s homework, Teddy’s checking somebody else’s homework. I check Teddy; Teddy checks Maggie and Laura; Maggie and Laura check Selina and Precious. The children were a big help.”

Nigerians have always placed tremendous importance on learning, she explains.

“Even the poorest people in Nigeria value education,” she said. “That’s something that you can get that nobody can take away from you.”

Lucy pushed her children hard, but she pushed herself harder, often working two jobs to cover the family’s needs.

“My mom is definitely my hero,” Maggie said. “When I think about everything she’s done, or she’s given up, to get us where we are today … I can’t think of one other person in this world who would have been able to do that.”

Next: A $1,000 turning point
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