MCCULLOUGH: As America squabbles over health care, Nigerian group is getting things done

It’s often mentioned here at the Daily Post that Donnie Ikpa’s accent is a soothing one, the kind of voice that relaxes you and could make bad news more bearable. And that’s just his everyday voice.

You should hear him speak about his passion.

Ikpa is the president of the Atlanta chapter of Udi-Ezeagu, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide free health care in two counties in his native Nigeria. He is also the chairman of the national fundraising committee.

Udi-Ezeagu — named for the two counties — began when Nigerians living in America saw a need for preventative screenings for family members back home. Many were dying from preventable diseases.

“We were sending money home to bury family members,” Ikpa says.

And so started Udi-Ezeagu USA. At first, it was just a loose-knit group that “self-taxed” to send donations back to Nigeria. But the effort grew. In 2008, under the leadership of Chief Festus Okonkwo of Dallas, the screening center was launched. UEUSA rented a building in Enugu and found three people to work there, including a retired medical professional to direct the facility. Through donations, the members stocked it with supplies to screen for high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer and other ailments that many of the local townspeople and villagers often never know they have until it’s too late.

Though progress has been made, the UEUSA members want to do so much more. They want to build a permanent facility and turn it into a full-fledged diagnostic center. With an upgraded building, USAID and the World Health Organization can also provide services there. A more immediate goal is obtaining vans to use as mobile clinics so workers can go to more rural villages to screen and treat people with no way to travel to the facility in Enugu.

To help

Udi-Ezeagu is a 501(c) organization, and donations are tax deductible. Visit udi-ezeagu.org for more information or to donate.

And with so many in Nigeria in poverty, the intent is to keep the services free while keeping government intervention to a minimum.

“We don’t have anything against the (Nigerian) government, but we want (the facility) run the way we see health care services provided here,” Ikpa says.

So far, the government is cooperating. Officials in Udi and Ezeagu have provided funds to pay for the rented facility while also donating the land to house the permanent building. The government has also pledged to remain hands off in administration and possibly provide security in the future.

But for the rest — construction, the staff, the supplies and equipment — Udi-Ezeagu needs money. A lot of money.

“To get that building fully functional, we’re looking at maybe $5 million,” Ikpa says.

But Ikpa is optimistic and determined. Earlier this month, he collected donations prior to attending UEUSA’s national convention in Los Angeles. When he saw how the money poured in — and how much was raised worldwide — he was inspired to spearhead the fundraising and push for the next convention to be in Atlanta. One of the organization’s partners in California, Carson Mayor Jim Dear, has promised to reach out to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and UEUSA is seeking a venue for June 2014.

In the meantime, Ikpa is pushing to raise more funds. And yes, he knows Nigeria’s reputation for Internet scams and fraud, which is why he insists on transparency being paramount.

“I want everything on the up and up.”

While changing perception can be a struggle, Ikpa also believes in the power of the American people.

“We’re doing something every one of us feels strongly about. It’s time we go to mainstream America.”

Why is that? Because Ikpa believes that taking efforts beyond just Nigerians living in the U.S. will boost fundraising by leaps and bounds.

“As long as you’re doing something good, America will support you,” Ikpa says. “I”ve been everywhere. There is no country better than the United States.”

I hope his faith in America pays off. As Ikpa says, enough help can literally make the difference in life and death.

“Better to go home at Christmas and see loved ones,” he says, “than to go and hear stories about how they died.”

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.