Chidinma was afraid to come to America. It represented opportunity, but it also represented the unknown. In Nigeria, she had the support of family and friends. She had a good job as a nurse. She was comfortable. As much as she dreamed of traveling, she never thought the U.S. would be home. But her family was coming to America, and she would have to adjust.
In 2010, Chidinma followed her husband and sons across the ocean to Texas. Beginning in October of that year, the family of seven — two boys, three girls, and two parents — spent a few months with in-laws before finding a home in Euless. They lived within a mile of 6 Stones and depended on the New Hope Center as they settled into their new lives.
Seven years later, Chidinma is an archetypal 6 Stones success story. Not because she escaped poverty (although she did). Not because she landed a job as a nurse here in Texas (although she did). Chidinma represents the pinnacle of our lofty goals here at 6 Stones because she learned something even more valuable than job skills.
She learned about Community.
A New Kind of Charity
According to Chidinma, Nigerian culture is hospitable and familial. People take care of each other there. But not in the same ways that we do here. American charity, like the rest of America, caught her off guard.
“We came, and it was nothing we were used to. Back home, I did the charity. Kind of. I gave to people. I served people. They knew who was giving them stuff. But look at this place!” Chidinma said, gesturing around at the New Hope Center during our interview. “These are all donations, right? People you don’t know.
“We came and they told us to write everything [we needed]. Everything… I cried the first day. Because I didn’t know I was going to be found in that situation. But because somebody did it — and that was what I do, what I did back home — I took it with joy. It’s not every day you see people giving you stuff.”
For Chidinma, America was the land where everything was different. In Nigeria, she was well-employed and well-compensated. Community, as a concept, looked different. She cared for the people around her and they cared for her. But in Texas, she found herself on a dual threshold: in need for the first time, and encountering a very different kind of charity.
Those first few months were intimidating. Although the family knew English, they hadn’t practiced listening at the speed — or with the accents — with which it was spoken here. The job market was more difficult to navigate than expected because she had no license to practice medicine as a nurse, and the people here behaved differently. Chidinma, who was accustomed to showing her emotions and receiving the same courtesy from others, found herself in a sea of smiling faces, most of which were feigned. She had to learn to keep more of her thoughts and feelings to herself and to stop assuming a person’s temperament from their demeanor.
In many ways, she had to navigate a nation of counterfeits.
“Coming over here with my five kids and husband was a huge change,” she recalled. “Before we came here — honestly– I prayed and fasted because I didn’t know what to expect. I thought about the job, the kids, and where we would live. We just came… I didn’t know what to expect when we came here. It was just like a picture. When you see the US in magazines, that’s just what I saw.
“I thought I was going to just come in for a job and start up from where I stopped. Coming here as a nurse and finding that I can’t practice gave me a blow, honestly. But it was a good blow.”
She worked 16 hour days, splitting her time between a job as a Certified Nurse Aide and the cold glare of study guides that would help her to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. She rocketed past more tenured employees at a retirement home, inciting jealousy for her sterling success. But she never forgot the path that took her there.
Chidinma kept prizes from her first year in the United States. Even though she has long since obtained her license to practice as a nurse in the States, she still cooks in the pots and pans she got from the New Hope Center. Still wears clothes given to her by strangers. Because to her, they aren’t signs of weakness. They’re proof of strength.
“The first beds we used here were donated by the school. The teachers… I still keep a lot of the things we got from them. I will not throw them away. They will always remind me of where I came from,” she said. “Most of the clothes I got from them, I still wear them. As long as they still fit me, I will always wear them. Because each time I wear those clothes, they remind me of my first months here.”
This community welcomed Chidinma with flair. Members of her church hired her family to clean their home so that the recent immigrants would be employed. Others donated goods from their own closets and pantries. And, of course, there was 6 Stones. Where strangers cared for her, provided for her, and offered her Biblical counseling.
Looking for a way to return the kindness of strangers, Chidinma and her children attended Night of Hope in 2011. She was so struck by the crowds that she began to hope and pray for a chance be part of HEB ISD. She would eventually get her wish, serving as a nurse at the same school where she and her family volunteered that winter.
As Chidinma and her family settled in, they looked for ways to embrace and extend the generous spirit that had helped them find their way in the early years. Those same church goers who supported them became their allies in supporting others. 6 Stones became a platform for them to give back to the community that had provided for them.
“We had gotten comfortable here, and we stopped coming to shop at 6 Stones. But then, we are now the giving back ones. Not to the people that gave to us, but to the people that opened our eyes to another kind of giving,” she said. “This is community giving. You see students — young and old — old people; that amazed me again — they leave the comfort of their bed and they come out and they serve. Anybody in their right mind should know that there is something in it.
“That’s family. Family is all about giving and receiving. If a community like HEB is everywhere, what do you think will happen to America? There will be peace. There will be one-ness. One voice. And that voice is service… people want to belong, and they find different ways of belonging. This is the best way to belong, honestly. Giving.”
In fact, as far as Chidinma is concerned, selfless charity is the definitive trait of Americans. It is the thing that makes our nation different; the secret to our survival.
“Even if we disagree, there are things we need to do to keep everything going. That is America,” she said. “That is something that still blows my mind. That people may disagree about everything, but because they want to keep the peace of this place, they keep doing good. That’s amazing. I think that is what is keeping America together, you know? People don’t see eye-to-eye a lot, but if doing something is what will make this place keep going, they just leave their personal issues aside and do the right thing.”
We filmed our interview with Chidinma months ago. Long before Hurricane Harvey brought devastation to the Southern coast. Before the presidential election. Before the tragedy in Charlottesville. But even then, Chidinma seemed to sense that we would need to come together as a nation sooner than later, and that volunteering was essential for our unity.
“Sometimes, when people work together, they start seeing the good in the other person that they never saw before because they were blinded by disagreements. And then when there is a common ground to agree, in the long run, you might see that the disagreement doesn’t matter. It will bring people together,” she said. “We just need to step out of our heads and know that, when you mix with people, you don’t just create relationships. You warm the hearts of other people… my heart has been so warmed in these things, maybe nothing else would have done that until I die. But I found it because I needed to key in. I needed to make contact with other people.
“What 6 Stones did in my life, I might not have known elsewhere… They care about you holistically. What we got here, I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else. I don’t think there are two communities like HEB, with 6 Stones in the middle.”