There when life happens

NOTE: THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN TULSAPEOPLE MAGAZINE.

The nonprofit Tulsa Area United Way turns 100 this year. For over a century, the organization has grown to support more than 160 programs in six counties in northeast Oklahoma through partnerships with other nonprofits, collaborations and grants, with a goal of advancing the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community it serves.

“I like the phrase, ‘community stewardship,’” says Hannibal Johnson, co-chair of TAUW’s centennial History and Education Committee. “We have this community called Tulsa that’s been entrusted to our care. We nurture that community by being strategic about making sure that the least among us are supported and cared for through necessary services.”

TAUW raises more than $25 million each year to accomplish this, with the money supporting nonprofits like Big Brothers Big Sisters of Oklahoma (youth development and mentoring), Creek County Literacy (academic achievement), Goodwill Industries (workforce development), Morton Comprehensive Health Services (physical health and transportation) and Palmer Addiction Recovery Services, among many others.

Emeka Nnaka is a tri-chair of the 2024 TAUW annual fundraising drive, which begins this fall. With fellow chairs Stephania Grober (president, Oklahoma Plan and Western Markets for Blue Cross and Blue Shield) and Pierce Norton (president and CEO of ONEOK), Nnaka is tasked with helping to raise the millions of dollars that will, quite literally, change lives. For Nnaka, a keynote speaker, therapist and community advocate for hope, the mission hits close to home.

In 2009, Nnaka’s life instantly changed when a football injury left him paralyzed from the chest down. He credits The Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges — one of TAUW’s 70 partner agencies — as well as TAUW itself for helping him find a path forward after the accident.

“The Center was my gateway to the United Way,” Nnaka says.

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Emeka Nnaka in The Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges’ gym along with The Center Executive Director Wendi Fralick. Nnaka first used the facility’s fully adaptive gym in 2010, and he says it was the people he met there that kept him coming back.

When Nnaka first came to The Center in 2010, not only did he find a fully equipped adaptive gym, he also found community.

“What helped me get the most comfortable was hearing other people’s stories,” he says. “I often tell people that it was the equipment that got me to The Center, but it was the relationships that kept me there.”

Although Nnaka wasn’t aware of the relationship between TAUW and The Center at first, he eventually became a United Way Ambassador, learning all about TAUW’s partner agencies and the crucial financial support TAUW provides, in addition to representing TAUW in the public space.

“It was a match made in United Way heaven for both parties,” says Nnaka, who frequently spoke in public on behalf of the agency during his time as an ambassador. “That was super meaningful to me. Here I was talking about one partner agency, The Center, and we’ve got 60 to 70 other agencies that serve people from the beginning of life to the end of life, and everything in between. They’re agencies that are there for when life happens. The Center was a place that was there for me when life happened. Breaking my neck on the football field was not a part of my life plan, and I’m thankful there are agencies that exist for when the unthinkable happens, and that was what The Center was for me.”

Nnaka calls the agencies, “beacons of hope.”

“They’re all these different agencies that hold their hands to keep our community that we love together,” he says.

Wendi Fralick, The Center’s executive director, agrees.

“I think it’s really important for folks to know Tulsa Area United Way has such a significant impact on nonprofits that are serving people who can’t be served elsewhere, in any other way, than the way we serve them,” she says. “Their commitment to the nonprofit community is a commitment to the community at large. It’s important people realize that connection.”

For his part, Nnaka is eager to begin fundraising.

“It’s like a legacy for me. I’ve been a part of this Tulsa community for so long, and I’ve done a lot in it, but this community has done a lot for me. Chairing the campaign this year is going to be a chance for me to bridge a lot of different spaces that I’m in together,” he says. “When I got the text about being an ambassador for the United Way 10 years ago, I was putting the pieces of my life back together. It’s crazy to think 10 years later, I’m now the tri-chair of the centennial campaign. I live in my own house. I’ve got my career. I’ve got my degree. The full circle aspect of it to me was just too sweet to not be a part of.”

For more information visit tulsacenter.orgtauw.org and emekannaka.com.

Sideline support

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Tulsan Maddy Edwards competed on the international stage with the U.S.A. Women’s Under 25 team in the fall of 2023. She attends the University of Texas-Arlington and plays on the Lady Movin’ Mavs women’s wheelchair basketball team.

 

As Tulsa Area United Way celebrates 100 years of service, it’s impossible to calculate the number of individual lives impacted by the organization and its community partners. While statistics are important for any organization, they can never tell the full story. TAUW’s centennial theme is “One Hundred Starts with One,” and a good way to understand the organization’s mission is to focus on one person, one life. Twenty-year-old Maddy Edwards’ life is a story of resilience and grace that beautifully illustrates the way TAUW and its 70 partner agencies — in this particular case The Center for Individuals with Physical

Challenges — change lives.

Born and raised in Tulsa, Edwards was just 5 months old when she contracted bacterial meningitis, a potentially life-threatening infection of the “meninges,” the protective covering for the brain and spinal cord. She was given less than a 20% chance of surviving the night. As a result of the meningitis, Edwards underwent multiple surgeries, including the amputation of her left leg and left thumb. Ten years later Edwards broke her right ankle playing soccer. Because of previous damage from meningitis, her ankle was unable to heal properly, leading to the amputation of her right leg.

Edwards is a junior at the University of Texas-Arlington where she is studying special education with hopes to get a master’s in psychology. She plays on the Lady Movin’ Mavs, UTA’s women’s wheelchair basketball team. Last October, Edwards competed on the U.S.A. Women’s Under 25 Team, traveling to Thailand where the team won gold at the Under 25 World Championships. According to Edwards, that experience would never have happened without the support she received from The Center as a young athlete.

When did you first decide you wanted to play basketball and why?

When I was around 12 years old in 2015, my mom found The Center and wanted me to attend a practice to see if I liked it. I immediately fell in love with the sport. I loved the camaraderie of the team and the physical aspect of the game. I wanted nothing more than to get better and be able to play. I attended two basketball camps, both a co-ed and a women’s, at the University of Texas at Arlington that summer and fell in love with basketball even more. Seeing all the women at camp who played hard, and worked even harder, to get better was incredibly inspiring to see as a 12- or 13- year-old who was new to the game.

What was The Center’s role in your decision to play wheelchair basketball and your athletic development?

The Center provided a safe place for me to learn and grow both as an individual and in basketball. My coach, Ray Bradford, helped me in ways that nobody else could. He was always so supportive in all my endeavors and never gave up on me, even when I had spurts of time with no progress. Seeing the way the team and The Center supported each other was amazing and I wanted to be a part of it.

How did your experience at The Center help you prepare for your college career on and off the court?

Without The Center, I never would have been introduced to wheelchair basketball. I would never have had the opportunities I have had if it wasn’t for the everlasting support from The Center. Playing with the Tulsa team at The Center allowed me to grow as a basketball player and exceed my expectations as to what I could do.

What are your post-graduation plans? will basketball continue to be a part of your life?

After graduation I want to be an elementary special education teacher. With my master’s, I want to be able to provide testing in schools for students who need IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) and 504s, which allows schools to provide support for students with a disability so they can learn in a general education classroom. I plan to continue playing basketball after graduation. There are adult teams all over the United States, and I plan to be a part of one wherever I may end up living after graduation.

How is The Center important to you and to the Tulsa community?

I think The Center is an incredible place for resources for the community. The Center has such a safe feeling to it. For me, The Center provided a place to make new friends, learn the importance of teamwork and grow as a person.

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