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Looking over construction of new classrooms at St. Joseph School in Garam, Nigeria, are Tim McSorley and Father Kizito Okhuoya.

Wearing bright yellow t-shirts and colorful hats in recognition of the Fourth of July, Fr. Kizito Okhuoya, at left, Tim McSorley, and Bill Agnew stain wood at St. Joseph’s School in Garam, Nigeria. The wood will be used to construct two new classrooms and a library.

Mission trip a homecoming for Nigerian priest

Almost anyone who has been on a mission trip to a third world nation will describe an eye-opening, even transformative experience.

But for Father Kizito Okhuoya, a priest from the Minna Diocese in north-central Nigeria, who has served in the archdiocese for 12 years, it’s more than a mission trip – it’s going home.

Since 2011, Father Okhuoya and more than 20 people from five parishes in the Archdiocese of Omaha have gone on mission trips to visit rural villages he once served as a priest. They work on building projects and bring medical and school supplies to health clinics and schools through Hope Connecting Hearts Nigeria, the nonprofit organization he founded that same year.

"It’s my way of staying connected, of not forgetting where I come from," said Father Okhuoya, pastor of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Verdigre and St. William Parish in Niobrara.

The mission trips also take on a greater meaning when he sees how the two cultures – African and American, integral parts of his life and ministry – are bridged through the parishioners who accompany him and the families they encounter.

"The beauty is in the human solidarity that radiates in the people," Father Okhuoya said. "It’s a true reflection of the universality of the Catholic Church."

An opportunity to strengthen those bonds will take place May 1 in Niobrara with a fundraiser for Hope Connecting Hearts that will include a live auction, food and music. It will help fund the work for Father Okhuoya’s next mission trip to Nigeria this summer.

Before coming to the United States in 2004 for graduate studies and to serve in the Omaha archdiocese, Father Okhuoya helped open schools in two of the rural parishes he served in Nigeria, St. Joseph School in Garam and St. Philip School in Bakin-Iku. Since coming to the archdiocese, Father Okhuoya also has helped Divine Mercy School in Erena and other schools in Nigeria.

Ninety-six percent of all funds raised through Hope Connecting Hearts goes to projects in Nigeria, with 4 percent covering other costs, Father Okhuoya said.

In the last five years, the ministry has built drinking-water wells for St. Joseph and Divine Mercy schools and their surrounding communities, as well as 17 classrooms with more than 340 desks, two libraries, toilet facilities and a kitchen. The nonprofit raised nearly $66,000 last year, some of which is being used to build living quarters for the staff at Divine Mercy School.

Enrollment has risen since 2011 from nearly 200 students to more than 400 at St. Joseph, and from about 70 children at Divine Mercy to more than 450.

But for Father Okhuoya, it’s about more than numbers.

"We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and invited by the church to do something to not just make a difference for others but join in solidarity with them, giving them a voice and hope for a brighter future," Father Okhuoya said.

WANT TO HELP?

Hope Connecting Hearts Nigeria fundraiser for work to be done on a mission trip June 30-July 13. Proceeds will go toward building four classrooms, a well and toilet facilities at St. Andrew School in Kutako, Nigeria.

WHEN: May 1, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

WHERE: Niobrara High School auditorium, 247 North Highway 12, Niobrara.

COST: Adults – $15, youths ages 6-12 – $5, children under 5 – free.

MORE INFO/DONATE: Go to
hopeconnectingheartsnigeria.org

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