‘Creating life changing memories for generations drives me’
MaryJane Ogugua-Verwey is a Chef and founder of, Opening Hearts Foundation, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to catering for underprivileged children and providing them with basic needs.
The Information and Communication Technology consultant turned chef, became one of the foremost leading SMS aggregators back in 2009, as well as one of the first to create and maintain an online website selling technological gadgets. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she talks about her passion for children and her effort to ensure they are being fed nutritional meals and catered for.
What attracted you to indigent children, how did you develop the passion for them?
SEVERAL years ago, in the Christmas of 2017, I went to buy food items in the market and I noticed a lot of children on the streets, begging for food, while my children were at home watching Nickelodeon. It struck me that many people were more concerned about children in the orphanage homes, but few catered for those on the street.
You are an ICT consultant turned chef, how did you make that turn, what informed your decision?
I wanted to do something that I had 100 per cent control over; my love for food and the many options available makes it possible to have control. Everyone has a hidden passion they feel they can’t pursue, because it may not pay the bills, but over the years, I became more content with doing that, which makes me happier than struggling with those that I felt should make me happy. Watching the eyes of the children I help and hearing the reviews of the customers that I serve is definitely my new calling.
At what point did you decide to set up Opening Hearts Foundation?
I started with outreach in 2018, using funds from family and friends. However, in trying to increase our reach, companies asked if the organisation was registered; the need to set up was birthed.
I have a story to tell. I stand here today as a product of the goodwill and grace of many benevolent good people. I was once a child like these children that would look at the more privileged children on Christmas day or at Easter and pray for the day when I too could have like they did. I, therefore, did everything to make my children happy and not to be like I was, but they are only two and that was not enough for me.
At Opening Hearts Foundation, I feel the heartache of seeing children from impoverished backgrounds, as they watch others from more privileged backgrounds enjoy seasons of joy with no recourse to them. For this reason, and my team have undertaken to create memories that these less privileged children can cherish for the rest of their lives.
What have been your activities so far at the Opening Hearts Foundation?
In the past three years, we touched the lives of 4000 children using 17 various interventions. This time, we feel we have come of age for our 18th intervention. However, responsibility comes with ambition, growth and expansion, so we are aiming to reach out to 2500 children with food, drinks and medical aid in eight communities in eight locations and within the Lagos State sub-urban metropolis on Christmas day.
We started with 500 children on 25th December 2018, and since then, with my passion, my ambition and my mission, we continued relentlessly, even though the COVID-19 lockdown (in 12 Sundays) children were fed, given face masks, sanitisers and taught hand hygiene and safety measures.
This year, you are also reaching out to indigent children, what would you be doing differently?
This year, our approach to our 18th intervention has taken on a life of its own much beyond our expectations. You see, it costs just N300 to feed a child, but N3000 to turn that into a children’s party of 10 friends. That notwithstanding, it cost over N2Million to intervene, collaborate, sustain and reach out to eight communities in eight locations to feed over 2500 children.
This year, with a team of 60 volunteers all with one heart within 12hours, we would take food, drinks and medical aid, in collaboration with benevolent organisations and the kindness of financial help from individuals. It is our goal and therefore, our deliberate plan to put an extra smile on a child’s face by providing all of the above and perhaps gift packs to children between the ages of one and five amidst a celebratory ambience. Finally, our medical aid intervention has graduated with the aid of our pharmaceutical sponsors to having a pharmacist on the ground, providing deworming medication with the skill that ensures that every child gets their medications prior to obtaining their meals.
You must have faced challenges in the course of your work, kindly share some of them?
As with everything, we look forward to challenges, because it gives us the opportunities to explore innovations. For example, over the past interventions, logistics needed a lot of good ideas to achieve. The exciting part is that some communities need to be reached via a boat ride, which is a good opportunity to enjoy good scenery.
Secondly, cooking for 2500 and above people surely face challenges such as physically over 1000 balls of onions, processing bags of peppers getting into your eyes and more, but enjoy overcoming as it brings joy to the heart. Finally, we face a funding challenge, but then again, as with all forward-looking solutions, this has given us an opportunity to reach out to well-meaning people, hence widening the net of our reach, improving the lives of so many and drawing more people into this opportunity of kindness that brings good cheer to people at Christmas.
What drives you and keep you going?
There is nothing so fulfilling as seeing a previously un-expectant child face light up with that smile that makes one know they were part of creating. The fulfilment of bringing something tangible to these communities on such a special day may be insignificant for some, but it is the engine that floats my boat until my next intervention. My drive is the fact that a single meal, some medical aid and lots of cheer creates life-changing decision making, forward-looking memories for generations that could otherwise have turned into resentful, lawless or depressed children, especially because you made it happen.
As a mum, businesswoman, philanthropist and more, how are you able to combine all of these roles and still be at your best?
I don’t even know how to answer this question, because I look at what I have been able to achieve; I can only place grace, mercy, wisdom and sheer grit at the doorstep of my success. Having a formidable and wonderful support structure from family, friends and my entire loved one is also part of my success story. When people ask me why I do all that I do, the famous question that comes out is, ‘is the job for your father?’ I simply smile and answer them back, ‘No, it’s for my children.’ The combination of all I do is almost like a personal Gantt chart put together over years of experience, as well as clear failures that have brought about my personal scars and stars.
What is your advice to young women on living their dreams and becoming the very best versions of themselves?
Every woman is as young as you feel. This message is not only to young women but to any woman out there who knows she has a dream to achieve, where society places a traditional stigma on anyone they term as ‘past their sell-by date’.
I, therefore, wish to encourage every woman to be intentional, deliberate and determined that she can achieve that inner feeling of peace, which comes from bringing joy to other people. The best version therefore of any woman out there to become her own self potter by turning herself inside out bringing to the fore her inner beauty and throwing it down to create that version of herself that reflects her outer strength.