–Akerele, social worker
By Josfyn Uba and Henry Okonkwo
Mrs Elsie Akerele, is the founder of Lady Atinuke Oyindamola Memorial Home (LAOM. She has been running the home where she caters for hundreds of physically and mentally challenged children for nine years.
Having shouldered this responsibility for this long, Mrs Akerele told Daily Sun recently in Lagos that beneath every physically challenged person, abounds potentials waiting to be tapped and society is doing itself harm by rejecting and neglecting them continually.
The matronly social worker spoke about the challenges, pains and gains of taking care of the vulnerable recalled how the death of her mentally challenged child completely changed her perspective about life
Why did you take to caring for the physical and mentally challenged children?
I started the home to honour my late daughter, Atinuke who had epilepsy. She was just an infant when she fell from the first floor of our building at Victoria Island and survived. We thanked God because she sustained no major injuries except a cut on her head.
Life continued until about seven years later when she came late at the centre for her primary six final examinations. The examiners stopped her from taking that examinations because of her lateness. Then, suddenly she fell down and went into a crisis.
That was the beginning of her seizures. We suspected that the fall seven years earlier had affected her brain and the trauma and shock of not writing the exam triggered the epilepsy. Sufferers with such health challenge faced stigmatisation but I stood by my daughter with courage and managed her with treatments and everything available to me.
Atinuke still went to secondary school and we were always with her, monitoring and encouraging her and telling her she could do well. She gained admission to study Mass Communication at the Ogun state polytechnic, where she graduated and got married. She secured a job appointment and worked until she was to deliver a baby, she had an operation which she never recovered from. She died in the process of childbirth in 2006.
How did her death affect you?
I was challenged because I saw it as a cross that I had to bear. I started this home for the physically challenged children and acquired experience. Now, I have soft spot for children, especially, the mentally challenged ones. I look out for them, and encourage their parents. And I see that God has helped me. I have succeeded and I believe other parents should share in my experience. That is why I started the home.
I started with only eight neglected children at Idimu. But by the time my daughter died, I had to stay with her baby at Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and when I returned, two of the children had gone missing and nobody cared to look for them. I felt so bad. I felt a huge sense of loss. So, I sold the house there and got a bigger potion of land and built a structure where I started all over with the children.
What about your family? How did they react to this move?
Children born with special needs have led to break-up of many marriages. My last son was born with Down syndrome. That was the reason my husband walked out on our marriage and moved on to another woman. He argued that I couldn’t have this child in his house. So, we have been separated since then. It hasn’t been easy. All my children have grown up. My youngest is 25 years old and independent, while many of them are married.
Do you have regrets for starting this?
I have no regrets at all because God has helped me. When you are doing something and you see positive impact, you will feel fulfilled.
For nine years you have been into this, how has it been running LAOMH?
At the LAOMH, we take care of 34 special persons and eight staff members (caterer, cook, caregivers) who are on a 24 hour service status. It’s been quite tough. Sometimes, we lack food and we would go starving. I have sold all I have but I am ready to beg for the sake of the children. We stay in Badagry where we don’t have access to electricity so we spend heavily on fuel for our generator.
Many members of the community see the children as the ‘children of the gods’ and ask themselves whenever they see me, ‘what is this woman doing with these type of children?’
And many a time I would fight on behalf of the children because I see myself as their mouthpiece. I must be ready to defend them at all times. The society see them as outcasts, and people that should not be touched.
Children with special needs are very expensive to maintain. But my most pressing problem now is paying salaries of the staff in our home. We don’t get volunteers whenever call for them. It really makes our faith grow weak. The economy is affecting everybody so the donations are dwindling too. We only look up to God and He has never failed us.
With all these challenges, what has kept you going?
I am unbiased about anything and anybody. So caring for other people’s children is normal. They are children. They didn’t ask to be born the way they are. They are here, so they are here for all of us.
These children are defenseless. Many of them still remain children, even at 30 or 40 years. They are children forever. That is their mindset and when you come close to them and see their innocence, you’ll marvel. And that gives me the enthusiasm I need to carry on.
I also thank the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, for setting up the Disability Trust Fund, this is a welcome development and we are happy to say that this will help organizations like ours in years to come.
What are your projections for this home?
As every organisation with the responsibility of taking care of the down-trodden in our society, it is our dream and goal to bridge the gap between people with mental disability and the general society.
We believe that the work we have started will ultimately outlive us and open up more platforms for people with mental challenges to have a safe and comfortable abode where they can be appreciated and taken care of. In this regard, our long term goal is to build a home of international standard and learning centre where they can be well managed.
We want to build an inclusive environment for people with mental challenges and special needs.
In abiding with our vision to bridge the gap between people that are mentally challenged and the general public, we also need special buses for transportation and mobility in order to expose people with special needs and their challenges to the general public.
This we want to achieve by taking them out on excursions, religious events, social gatherings (on invitation) and other sort of activities that would make the public have an inter face with them and play a positive part in integrating them into the society.
From your experience, what is your advice to parents and the society on physically and mentally challenged children?
In every child, lies a potential good for all. There is a bit of good that God intends to give to all mankind through our children. I aspire to educate the public and inform that the physically changed child is not wasted, and should not be neglected because they can make you happy.
You need to see the way they cheer whenever I get home. They welcome me like a queen. An on-looker, one day commented that even the President is not that gladly welcome whenever he comes home but I do because they always expect me home. And whenever they see me coming back, those who cannot talk would joyfully clap their hands while those who cannot clap, would also jump with so much joy. I love to cheer them back. It’s something I look forward to everyday and that’s why I cannot stay a night outside the home.