When Rose and Apollos Ihedigbo moved their young family to the United States from Nigeria in 1980, they were determined to pursue opportunities in higher education that had not been available to them in their native land.
The road was not easy, but through persistence and hard work Rose and Apollos each earned doctoral degrees from the University of Massachusetts. Along the way they strove to teach their children the value of a good education as well as the harsh reality that not all those who desire to learn possess the resources to pay for schooling.
Now their youngest son, James, is doing his part to provide assistance to those who find themselves dealing with challenges similar to those that his parents faced.
The Ravens safety is the president of a charitable organization he founded in 2008 that provides scholarships to students of African descent seeking educational opportunities in the United States. HOPE Africa — the first word is an acronym for "Help Our People Excel" — funds 12 students at colleges across the country.
"What we do is we pay for their last dollar in, so to speak," Ihedigbo said. "Where their financial aid and tuition don't meet there's always a gap. We pay that gap for the four years of college for that student. It kind of takes a little bit of the financial burden off that family and off the student so they can concentrate on the books."
Ihedigbo, who turns 30 on Tuesday, is in his second season with the Ravens after stints with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. Even in the midst of a busy football season as a starter with the defending Super Bowl champions, he still finds time to attend to the business of HOPE Africa.
"It's like anything, you have to schedule and make time for things that are important," Ihedigbo said. "And I am very busy with football, but this is something that's very dear to my heart and very important to me, so I make time for it."
Rose Ihedigbo sees HOPE Africa as James' way of carrying on the legacy of her late husband, who died in 2002 while in Nigeria overseeing the agricultural and technical college he and Rose co-founded.
"Since Apollos died, James has stepped up to continue the legacy of his father to make sure that the underprivileged are supported and those who cannot afford certain levels of education can acquire that education," she said. "So I am very proud that HOPE Africa has come in and filled that gap of providing scholarships to students in the U.S."
In order to raise the money used to pay for the scholarships, Ihedigbo has hosted an annual event in New York City during NFL draft week in April. In each of the past two years HOPE Africa has partnered with Beyond the Boroughs, a national scholarship fund founded by former NFL offensive lineman Tutan Reyes, to throw a party where fans watched the first round of the draft with players.
This year, Ihedigbo is excited to host a two-hour fundraising cruise on Dec. 9 from the Inner Harbor aboard the Spirit of Baltimore. The Ravens will be well-represented on the cruise, with Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Torrey Smith, Lardarius Webb and many others scheduled to attend.
"We wanted to do something here in Baltimore and came up with this idea of a cruise night where fans can hang out with their favorite Ravens players, enjoy great food, great music, great drinks and experience some of the African culture," Ihedigbo said. "And 100 percent of the money raised from all our fundraisers go directly towards these scholarships; we keep absolutely nothing in-house. Everyone that's on staff and all our board members are all volunteers."
Although HOPE Africa has already grown faster than he had anticipated, Ihedigbo said he looks forward to being able to increase the number of students receiving assistance in the future.
"We're at 12 kids now, and I would love to have a conversation this time next year and it's 24 kids," he said. "It's awesome to be able to see the benefit to these students' lives changing through our hard work as well as theirs."
HOPE Africa's 1st Annual Celebrity Cruise and Casino Charity Night
Monday, Dec. 9
7 p.m. – 10 p.m. (boarding from 7 p.m. – 8 p.m.)
Spirit Cruises, 561 Light St., Baltimore
Tickets and info: http://www.hopeafricausa.orgCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun