•How she picks and cares for abandoned children with serious congenital health issues
When THERESA LAJA ADEDOYIN left a lucrative artistic directing job with the Commonwealth office in the United Kingdom to return to Nigeria, she never knew that her life would be so turned around inexplicably like it has.
She had planned to make films as well as other audiovisual contents to contribute to the booming culture business which she has acquired expertise. But her plans soon changed. No thanks to a freak accident at the National Theatre Iganmu Lagos which led her to another path.
While bedridden for months after the accident which threatened her with amputation, she prayed fervently for healing with a promise to work for God if healed. God answered her prayers and she decided to fulfill her pledge to Him by directing her service to the care of children with varied congenital and sometimes terminal health problems.
She set up Hearts of Gold Children’s Hospice in Surulere, the heart of Lagos, threw the home open in 2003 and have in the past 17 years continued to wade through the challenges of running such a home in a country where more and more children with such health issues are regularly dumped or “thrown” away. A visit to the hospice and seeing her mingling and playing with her children will leave any visitor in awe.
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This is the story of Theresa Laja Adedoyin, Nigeria’s Mother Theresa, a woman with a big heart of Gold.
What inspired you to set up Hearts of Gold Hospice?
A freak accident at the National Theatre Lagos that left me bedridden for months was the spark that fired my interest to set up a home for children with terminal ailment. People I call society’s rejects who are always left to die. I can say that the journey to starting Hearts of Gold Children’s Hospice began on 19th March 2000. My left leg was broken into three fractures. I was hospitalized and faced imminent amputation.
I prayed and prayed on my sick bed asking God to spare me of further pain. I specifically made a covenant with God that if He would save me and save my leg from amputation, I would work for Him. When I got healed, I almost forgot the promise I made to God. Yet He kept reminding me until I took the stand. So when I took the decision, I chose the area of care for physically and mentally challenged children. So I can say that Hearts of Gold Hospice is a fulfilment of my promise and vow to God. I am still very grateful to God because He saved me and saved my leg.
Working with people with disability must be a daunting task as they seem helpless depending on others for everything?
You can say that again. My relationship with people with mental disabilities started back in March 1990. I first was privileged to have gained experience in the area of special education with emphasis on children with challenging behavior especially children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral Palsy, Dyslexia and other neurological conditions associated with mental challenge. I worked for the Commonwealth as artiste in residence. We were about 48 from Commonwealth countries. I later set up Obatala Disability Arts Vocational and Training Centre. I also ran a centre for adult with learning disability in East London. I also lectured at
Newham County College East London. I continue to thank God for the opportunity to walk, work, dine and wine with these special children. Through them, I have learnt to be patient, humble and more giving.
What were the initial problems at the time you answered this call of God?
When I answered the call, the first question to solve is the issue of funds. Where was I to get the funding to run this? That question was answered by a solid belief that God will provide.
Next was the venue. I did not have a place except my three-bedroom bungalow. But I quickly answered those questions by heaping the whole load on God who I strongly believe sent me on the errand in the first place. I started by converting my small bungalow on Adebola street, Surulere into the hostel for the first few children. I commissioned experts in woodwork to furnish the hostels to habitable level for our special children.
The third problem was getting trained staff to help me in handling the special cases. Several nurses available were not experienced in the special cases that we handle. The available ones did not have the kind of friendly temperament to handle my special children. Even now we still have that problem because in Nigeria today, it is hard to find dedicated staff who are devoted to this kind of service. Work attitude is also very poor. However we seem to have solved the staff matter which continues to recur.
More so, the welfare materials we require on a weekly basis including food, provision, toiletries etc are still very scarce just as the resources to procure them is never enough. The secret of our longevity is the understanding and assurance that God sent me on the job so would see me through. And He has seen us weather all the storm and still running many years after some people had propagated that it was a fluke. In the past few years we have found dedicated staff and their welfare is paramount because the work is as tough.
What do you recall of the first inmates?
We started with two children and continued to expand. Our appearance on the then-popular Funmi Iyanda show created the awareness that before we returned from the studio, many children were waiting for us. We spread our message to the hospitals and health centers across Lagos and children started being admitted. I am happy that today, we are registered agency with the Lagos state Ministry of youths and Social Development who facilitates the admittance of the children. They always refer to Hearts of Gold whenever a new special child is found. At the first home at Adebola, we grew to have 36 children. However at the home now, they have tripled.
You agree that funding remains the major issue; How do you solve this particular problem?
Most funding is personal funds. We still depend of well spirited Nigerians for support and they have not failed us. Sometimes we have produced film and television content for marketing because it has always been my forte which also helps in generating funds.
Almost seventeen years and still running; what’s the magic?
I feel fulfilled without mincing words. It is only dedication that has seen us through the years and nothing more. It is all to the glory of God and Nigerians who have continued to support us. I know that if the children could talk, they will sing to the praises of several people who have not forgotten us. I cannot name names here because I may not ever name all who have done us well to make the children enjoy the basics of life in good health. Several people have been there for us since inception. But the children and I remain grateful to the Big Daddy of Hearts of Gold, Babatunde Fashola SAN for building for us a befitting home and for some of Nigeria’s top financial institutions for so much support. The story of how Fashola found us a home is a story for another day. Former Governor Ambode did not abandon us just as Governor Sanwolu has also not forgotten us. Also Speaker of the Federal House of the Reps Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila and a host of others some of whom remain anonymous who celebrate their birthdays with us yearly or support us with food and provisions daily are always in our hearts. Please this is not a roll call. I may run the risk of mentioning some and leaving out some of our numerous benefactors.
Why do we have to wait for another day to hear the story of how Babatunde Fashola SAN built a befitting home for you and your children? Please tell us now.
Well, If you must know. Babatunde Fasha visited Hearts of Gold Children’s Hospice on one of his birthdays and was moved to tears on that visit and in agreement with his wife Abimbola continued to send emissaries to the home, discussing our needs with a resolve to continue to support us as best as he could and has never looked back. On his next birthday, he sent out an invitation to me and the children to a reception at a venue somewhere on the famous Alhaji Masha street. It was there he shocked me with the presentation of a new home built according to world class specification. I have never been so shocked in my life like I was on that day that Fashola presented the new home to us. I never knew he was secretly building an internationally designed ultra modern facility to accommodate these children.
He is the Big Daddy at Hearts of Gold with a resolve to be there for us at all times
and we will never stop being grateful to him. The children may never be able to thank him due to their condition but God knows they are grateful.
What about those who require palliative surgery….
Those who require surgery are given the best medical care with support from many corporate entities. We have relationship with local and internationally renowned hospitals in Nigeria and in many other countries including India, and UAE where emergency surgical interventions are done and still being done for some of the children.
You may have learnt lessons about the prevalence of congenital ailments in Nigeria as compared with the EU?
Founding and running Hearts of Gold children Hospice has exposed me to much prevalence of congenital ailments across western Nigeria. Parents tend to run away from such so called problems that they abandon the children or throw them away kind of. We take over the nursing of such children by managing their lives.
Any plans for tomorrow? I trust you must want this dream to outlive you? What do you envisage for the future?
I have already taken care of that. As soon as Barrister Fashola donated this building, I told him of my wish to let it outlive me. I decided that it is only the Catholic Church that can selflessly run it in perpetuity so we have made such arrangements to complete the paper works on the decision to bequeath the Home to the Catholic Diocese of Lagos.