Occasionally, one hears loud lamentations that there are no good places to donate one’s charitable dollars and have some confidence that the money will be well-spent. In an effort to address that complaint, I have written about several organizations[i] that are doing remarkable work.
Home To Enhance African Life, Inc. (HEAL) is one that is worth a closer look. It was founded by Nigerian seminarian, Deacon Leo Okonkwo (ordained in 2015 and working toward the priesthood), whose life story epitomizes the suffering he hopes to alleviate for some of his compatriots.
To help his family, he was forced to become a bonded house servant in the home of a local tribal chief when he was eleven. Three years later, in desperation, he prayed a novena to St. John Bosco and, on the last day, received an offer to attend a minor seminary. In grateful response, the young man promised to become “a holy priest and to be the slave of poor and marginalized children in situations like, or worse than, his own.” He founded Water For Life Mission in 1997 to provide clean water to rural villages and educate orphaned children.
Deacon Okonkwo organized the volunteer missionaries who came to help him into a religious community called the Messengers of Justice (MOJ). In the rural village of Umuagwu, he founded the Mother Enabler Compassionate Home School (home and school) for orphans.
Funding assistance for this work has come from an old friend and former Mount St. Mary Seminary classmate, Nick Costello with whom, in 2013, was founded Deacon Okonkwo's Home To Enhance African Life (HEAL): a 501c3 charity based in Chicago.
This is a work of Catholic Action if ever there was one. The HEAL website is adamant that “every aspect of [its] Apostolate is a Catechetical mission in the spirit of ‘Go make disciples of all nations…’ (Matthew 28:19) and ‘Give them something to eat yourselves…’ (Luke 9:13). Mindful of our Lord’s command, we undertake rural evangelization by helping the poor and abandoned encounter God through the justice, mercy, and compassion upon which our mission is founded. In this way, we exhibit the spirituality of the Messengers of Justice order, namely, the self-emptying Spirit of Christ (cf. Phil 2:6-11).”
The school serves kindergarten, primary, and secondary school level children. Those, students and widows, who live at the school’s home, receive food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. Students with academic aptitude are prepared for college but there is also an Agro-Based Emancipation School of Excellence (ABESE) option for learning agricultural and livestock farming skills. The MOJ missionary volunteers are involved in this, too, raising poultry for the home. There is also a legal aid component to this work, helping widows retain the family property after their husbands’ deaths and several entrepreneurial projects to help make the home and farm self-sustaining.
As one might imagine, there are a lot of needs here, including volunteers with “experience in education, health care, counseling, nutrition, youth ministry, and entrepreneurship” who have a deep, Catholic commitment. Although the orphanage-school is in southern Nigeria, this is no small thing to ask because not only are the people very poor but the northern half of the country is under a lot of pressure from jihadist fanaticism.
HEAL can be contacted at its website, healnigeria.org; or its Chicago office, 340 W. Superior St., Unit 612; Chicago, IL 60654; or, by phone: 312-952-4855