Emeka Nnaka Tulsa World Editorial: Priceless gift of purpose and hope found in community


Emeka Nnaka is a professional speaker, coach and author of a forthcoming autobiography. He is also a tri-chair of the 2024 Tulsa Area United Way fundraising drive.

I wear a bracelet on my right wrist that reads “Leaders in Hope.” It’s a reminder of Chan Hellman’s research on how hope is comprised of three things: attainable goals, pathways to achieve your goals, and a belief that you have what it takes to achieve them. So, in other words, when we pair hope and action, we can begin to find the answers to our most difficult questions — “What do I do now? How do I get through this? And do I have what it takes?” I believe in the power of hope and the power of action because without them, I would have never made it through my darkest days that began on a football field in 2009.

At the age of 21, while playing semi-professional football in Tulsa, I made a tackle that broke my neck and left me paralyzed from the chest down. I didn’t want to believe what had just happened. I was angry at myself, angry at the world, angry at my circumstances. But with the support of the Tulsa Area United Way’s nonprofit partners, Ability Resources and The Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges, I embarked on an intense journey of personal and professional growth.

At Ability Resources, a caring team ensured I received the essentials, including a power chair. Meanwhile, I spent countless hours at The Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges rehabilitating physically and connecting with people who understood my struggle when no one else could. Those experiences were not just about rehabilitation; they were about reimagining the potential of my new life.

As a way to get out of my house and out of my head, I began to volunteer at a church youth group and something unexpected happened. I went thinking I would give to them, and instead, they gave me the priceless gift of purpose and hope.

The support from the church, along with Tulsa Area United Way partner nonprofits, continued to propel me forward as I pursued further education. I went on to earn a master’s in counseling from the University of Oklahoma. These achievements were significant milestones, each marking a victory over the circumstances that once seemed to limit my future.

Then, in 2018, I encountered another series of profound challenges: my father and primary caregiver broke his ankle, and I was involved in a wreck that totaled my van. These events could have been great setbacks, but instead, they brought out the strength of our Tulsa community. The culmination of this support was the first of three appearances on The Ellen Show, where I was awarded $100,000, aiding in the recovery of my independence with a new accessible van. And when my apartment burned down that same year, Tulsa Habitat for Humanity stepped in to build a home tailored to my needs, complete with accessibility features.

Fifteen years ago, I was in a place where I had no goals, no pathways, and no belief in my ability to overcome the challenges I was facing. I had no hope, but life has a curious way of illuminating paths through the darkness. The Tulsa Area United Way and its partner nonprofits provided those first flickers of light, guiding me from paralysis on a football field to purpose and empowerment on platforms as vast as The Ellen Show.

So, if I could speak to myself in 2009, during those darker, uncertain times, here’s what I’d say: “Life isn’t over, embrace the support of your community, and always move forward because the light you find on this journey won’t just light your path—it’ll illuminate the way for everyone around you.”

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