Each week, this series will introduce you to an exceptional American who unites, rather than divides, our communities. To read more about the American profiled here and more average Americans doing exceptional things, visit onenation.usatoday.com.
Stacy Ahua was a shy child, the youngest daughter of immigrant parents who came to the United States from Nigeria with little more than a dream.
“I wasn’t a really interesting kid,” Ahua said.
Joining the speech and debate team at her high school helped her overcome that shyness.
“It was a lot of development of that skill that has been the most useful for everything I do now,” she said. “It was a transformational experience.”
Born in Houston, Texas, and raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, her family was her network, her support, her role models. Her parents were strict, which Ahua appreciates more as an adult.
“Growing up, you kind of think everybody has the same values, the same views, but that’s not the case,” Ahua said.
Coupling the discipline she learned from her parents with the communication skills she learned in school, Ahua began exploring her community, becoming more involved.
“I never really did one thing (as a volunteer),” she said. “I just started doing stuff.”
She began helping out as she could, building her network of people.
When a tornado hit Hattiesburg in 2013, she was thrust into a role she wasn’t expecting — volunteer coordinator for 1,200 to 1,500 people who wanted to help the city get back on its feet.
When another tornado struck in January, she was called upon to fill that role again.
“I have the weird skill of being able to create order,” she said. “That propelled me to do more of whatever that was.
“As it turns out there’s a real need for that in any organization, job or community activity. You’ve got to have a framework of how to do things.”
Ahua also works as program coordinator for Extra Table, a nonprofit organization started by restaurateur Robert St. John that buys healthy foods in bulk to distribute to nearly 30 food pantries in Mississippi.
She and director Mike Dixon raise funds separately to pay their salaries and expenses, so donations to the organization go solely toward the purchase of food.
“We try to be most efficient with what we have and still be functioning human beings,” she said.
Q&A with Stacy Ahua
What does it mean to you to be an American?
Our tribe (in Nigeria) is very prideful about who we are and what our history is, but there’s an undeniable fact that I was born and raised here and I’ve been afforded opportunities by being here that would not exist otherwise, so American versus Nigerian versus African American have been very ambiguous kinds of titles.
Having been raised by parents who came here with nothing, who educated themselves — those kinds of things factor into what being an American means to me in the sense of development as a person.
It means opportunity. It means working hard. It means honoring what my parents have done. It means so much more than where you are born, and I can say that about Nigeria as well. It’s an honor to be able to be called an American because of what it took to get that.
What moment touched and motivated you to launch this effort?
In fourth or fifth grade, (a fellow student) could not read. I hated any time someone picked on her. I would make little workbooks and do dotted lines so she could trace letters (to help her learn).
I can’t stand any kind of injustice. I can’t handle that very well.
What gives you hope or what concerns you?
What concerns me most, it’s kind of that all-or-nothing mentality for what people want. It’s either you completely agree with what I think and we can coexist, or if you don’t, you mean nothing to me. There is no middle ground. I don’t understand how anything can exist that way.
I feel the most positive about things I can control or things that I see every day. I can control to some degree, I can affect what hunger looks like in Mississippi with Extra Table.
What do you hope to accomplish through your efforts?
I just hope I help people. I hope I am able to help somebody. It doesn’t matter what level it’s on. It’s important how you enter and leave somebody’s life. I try to do whatever I can to fill whatever need I can.
Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi
Profession: Program coordinator for Extra Table, a nonprofit organization that raises money to buy healthy foods in for nearly 30 agencies in Mississippi; owner, Blueprint Hattiesburg, a marketing and networking business; has run several local and state political campaigns
Mission: To fill whatever needs she can and leave things better than she found them