When it comes to philanthropy, NFL professional Israel Idonije is in a league of his own. Join our conversation with Izzy as we tackle the topic of giving back.
You are one of the most charitable athletes in the NFL, what sparked your heart to want to help others?
It started with my upbringing. I grew up in a family of service where my parents were missionaries who moved to Canada from Nigeria when I was 4 years old. Giving back and doing what I could with what I had has always been a part of my life as a child.
What was your motivation behind starting the Israel Idonaje Foundation and whom does it support?
I wanted to mobilize my network and the people around me to do good work. As a young athlete you hear about charities and want to set up a foundation. Our primary focus is using a platform of social and emotional development, which is your EQ (emotional quotient). IQ (intelligence quotient) is basically the curriculum based stuff such as math and how smart you are in a tangible form.
Your EQ is less tangible and more about connections and understanding that your decisions are connected to the world around you and understanding the soft skills in relationship building in addition to conflict resolution. There is a matrix of 100 things that cover EQ but we’ve have broken ours down to 5 core skills to help kids become emotionally stable.
Those principals are: self-awareness (understanding who you are), social awareness (the role you play in building a positive community), self-management (putting a plan together for your life), responsible decision making (achieving goals for your life) and effective communication. It’s a big world and you have to be able to communicate across different barriers and cultures to maximize your full potential. Our target group is the youth to help them build their 5 core skills and that’s what we do all year around.
Why is Emotional Quotient so important?
It’s about that connection with the world around you. Do you remember Derrion Albert, the young man who was beaten to death Chicago? A child who is emotionally connected understands they are an important part of the community and thinks before they hit another child in the head with a two by four.
Tell us about Izzy’z Kidz
We have a kid zone in our youth center. This year we had we about 30 kids in our Izzy’s Kidz program. We have an after school program where the kids can come in to the center from 3pm -7pm. We have an hour homework help center that helps children with reading, math, and science. We have an open gym along with an hour of journaling in addition to an hour focusing on one of the 5 skills. In the summer we do a 5 week summer leaders Internship program where 3 kids learn who they want to be, here in our downtown offices. During these 5 weeks each kid will shadow a professional in the space they want to be in.
When you take someone’s hopes and dreams and apply it directly into a programs like these, it really turns the light on for the kids.
Is there one particular story of a child that grabbed your attention?
Without question, the story is of a young girl named Shagoon Ashton. We were in a village in Nigeria, Africa. I was playing with the kids while the doctors were treating hundreds of patients. One of the honorables came up to me with this woman, she was pleading that her daughter was sick and had to get to American for a surgery that would save her child’s life.
Shagoon was 5 years old at the time and had a hole in her heart that was pumping blood into her lungs risking death by suffocation. There is an organization in Texas called the Heart Gift Foundation, they offered to perform the surgery free of charge as long as we could get transportation to get her from Nigeria to Texas. Myself and Adewale Ogunleye (a teammate at the time) pitched in flew the girl and her mom to Texas.
The surgery was successful and after a few months we flew her to Chicago. To see this young girl and knowing everything that went into saving this young girls life was just an incredible story to be a part of.
What are ways the children can escape the troubles of dangerous neighborhoods?
There has to be hope and opportunities. Most families in those environments are looking for other options. It’s on us as leaders to do what we can to provide those opportunities. My hope is that the 3 interns that are with me go forward and be successful, go to college, get great jobs and have great stories about where they came from.
My hope is that each of them come back and mentor kids from that same program within that community. You create a system within the system, where despite our economic status we are taking care of one another. That thought of coming together to take care of and protect one another needs to be strengthened.
Our focus is the re-education of the ceremony of communion. Traditionally many churches will take communion in an empty cup with juice or wine and will separately have a host (bread). We have put a lot of research and development into creating the best possible prefilled packaged communion cup with this great tasting juice that is sealed. On top of that seal sits a host which is also sealed.
We have a product that is unmatched as far as how sanitary our process is. We are the country’s leader in prefilled communion sales and have been blessed to take over the market.
What is the story behind the development of Athlitacomics?
I came up with the concept in 2007. I wanted to do something to tell the story of athletes. The speed, the size, the strength of these athletes – were does these gifts come from? These athletes (The Protectors) were given these gifts for the purpose of saving humanity from an evil force that rules Earth through media, politics, and religion.
Is there a positive message behind your comic series The Protectors?
The message is that, just like The Protectors, every child has a special gift within them. You have to make a precious decision that you are going to turn on your gift. Fight for the good. Fight for the positive. That you are going to join the fight to make the tough decision to go to school, excel academically and stay away from negative persuasion.
The second component is literacy. It is very important that our children are able to read at a high level which correlates directly to their ability to succeed academically. We are fortunate that ‘The Protectors’ will be in all 80 of Chicago Public Libraries where kids can go and read. We use comic books as a lead in to approve the literacy of a lot of young kids.
What kind of determination does it take to make it in the NFL?
It’s the same as anything else. To succeed in anything you have to believe in yourself and be passionate about whatever you are pursuing. When you have that passion you have that ability to withstand those challenges that are sure to come. For me, I believed I could make it in the NFL. I was willing to put in the work and do those things necessary to make it to that goal. You have to have a relentless work ethic beyond what the average person is willing to do.
What is your state of mind when you take the field?
When I’m headed to the field I’m focused. I like to step on the field and be very confident and that confidence is rooted in preparation. Success on the football field happens because you’ve put in the work weeks prior.
What does life after football look like for you?
I’m fortunate because I’m already the things I’ll be doing once I retire. I feel good, the body is healthy. If the game lets me, I’d like to play another two or three years before I hang it up. When I’m done the foundation will be full steam ahead. We have an incredible CEO in Hallemah Nash.
Hopefully everything we do as an enterprise will continue to inspire, motive and shed light in a very positive fashion.
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