University of Maryland, College Park senior Odunola Ojewumi is literally doing life-saving work.
The 21-year-old founder of two non-profits—Sacred Hearts Children’s Transplant Foundation and Project A.S.C.E.N.D. —the award-winning pre-law student formed them four and two years ago respectively, after struggling for much of her life with severe health issues of her own.
The recipient of a critical heart and kidney transplant at the age of 12, the Beltsville, Maryland, native now works to help grant organ transplants to children across the country through her organization Sacred Hearts.
Via her grant program, Project A.S.C.E.N.D., the future public-policy maker supports a local charity, LLOL Mentoring, by providing it with the funds necessary to run a summer camp for 100 teenage girls that live in neighborhoods near nation’s capital.
The White House is in support of Ojewumi’s efforts: the Nigerian-American, who has worked as an intern in President Obama’s Cabinet Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, has also served as a board member on Obama’s Maryland State Student Chapter of Organizing for America. Her work has been featured on the White House website and her non-profit staffers were invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with members of the president’s administration.
Ojewumi is ranked among the top 50 Young Champions for Women in the U.S. by the international nonprofit White Ribbon Alliance.
ESSENCE.com: What is your cause?
ODUNOLA OJEWUMI: When I was 9 years old, I was diagnosed with a rare heart defect and I wound up needing two organ transplants, one for my heart and one for my kidney. But during my freshman year of college I was diagnosed with a complication with those transplants—post-transplant cancer. It was then that I decided to start Sacred Hearts: we work to raise awareness about organ donations, providing over 400 teddy bears to sick children across the U.S. Project ASCEND was a non-profit I started in conjunction with Sacred Hearts as a means to assist and empower low-income women. We’ve been able to successfully raise over $13,000 in grants from MTV, Glamour Magazine and Zip Car to start a college scholarship program. In the next month we will be surprising five members of this program with $1,000 scholarships for school. We’ve also created a teen camp reaching over 100 low-income girls in the D.C. metro area.
ESSENCE.com: Why do you feel so passionately about your work?
OJEWUMI: All of my efforts have been to improve my community and improve the lives of other people. Because I have so many health problems, my non-profits are a means for me to make my impact before I leave this earth. People with organ transplants know that their transplants won’t last forever—usually they last only between 10 and 20 years. I wanted to do something that would be around when I was no longer here. That way I will have made my impact on the lives of young people just like me.
ESSENCE.com: What is your health like today?
OJEWUMI: It’s a mixed bag. I was allowed to graduate last semester. I was supposed to graduate on time but I got really sick. I was in the hospital three times. And so I have to finish my coursework and officially graduate in May but I was allowed to walk. I’m getting better but it’s been a rough road.
ESSENCE.com: What do you recommend to those of us who’d also like to make a difference in the world?
OJEWUMI: I would say that the key to true happiness is impacting the lives of others in any small way, particularly through mentorship. If there’s a little human in your life—if there’s any person that you can assist, even if it’s a coworker, you should do it. I have a few mentors that have taken me under their wing. It’s the little things. If you have a day off, it’s more fulfilling than staying at home and watching TV or going to the movies or doing things that typically people my age do. I found so much fulfillment in public service and any small way you can help would be great.