An Oklahoma City University graduate student originally from Nigeria has several reasons to celebrate this week. On Saturday, he earned his master's degree in business administration and at a ceremony on Mother's Day, he'll get his law degree.
But Damond Isiaka, 33, will also be celebrating the organization that played a key role in his success — The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), which helped lead him away from the self-destructive path he was on as a teenager.
Isiaka is among the TEEM graduates who will share their stories Tuesday at TEEM's annual luncheon to highlight the nonprofit organization's mission and raise money.
Isiaka moved from Nigeria to Oklahoma with his family as a child and eventually fell into the wrong crowd, said Sarah Blaney, TEEM's director of development. His story as a teenager nearly two decades ago includes trouble with shoplifting, vandalizing, trying drugs and picking fights, all as he dealt with feelings of being uprooted, abandoned and angry, according to biographical information provided by TEEM.
“I'm not proud of any of those things but it is where I came from,” Isiaka said in a phone interview Thursday as he studied for a round of final exams.
He entered the TEEM program around 1999 when a church member directed him to the nonprofit organization that helps adults ages 18 and over facing homelessness, financial poverty and “poverty of their souls,” as Blaney phrases the feeling of worthlessness that people often feel.
The program, which offers education, job training and placement and social services, helped Isiaka realize that he mattered.
“Regardless of what you've been through, ... it doesn't have to define you,” he said.
Isiaka earned an associate degree in biomedical engineering and a real estate license and continued his education. His law school classmates voted him president, and he is considering a career in city government and management after graduation. He also has a good relationship with his family.
Although Isiaka expressed concern that by sharing his past troubles, some people would question his pursuit of a law degree, he said he wants his story's focus to be on TEEM's efforts that helped him reclaim his life.
“What TEEM did was basically provide a conduit to help me get back on the right track. I think one of the main things that I lacked when I went to TEEM was just a focus that a young man would need to make the right decisions,” Isiaka said. In addition to helping him figure out his aptitudes, TEEM provided basic needs like helping him get his driver's license and fit him with eyeglasses.
Blaney said often people don't have the self esteem to realize that they have skills that can help them.
“We really work with them on building them up (so) that they're in a frame of mind where they're ready to learn,” she said.