Katie Nzekwu: Finding Your Villedge

Katie Nzekwu: Finding Your Villedge

Katie Nzekwu joined us at Crossroads Church with stories to tell, from her grandmother’s favorite piece of advice to the discovery of personal superpowers. Amid the sounds of children playing and entrepreneurs typing on their laptops, free coffee in hand, we heard more about her experiences as founder of the local nonprofit, Villedge, and how she’s learned to look at herself as an equally important project.

Interview by Dani Clark. Photography by Stacy Wegley.

Go ahead and start by telling us about yourself.

When I think about who I am now, I cannot help but look at my life as this ongoing journey of self-discovery. Entrepreneurship will do that to you – it’ll challenge your beliefs and ideas to make room for spiritual growth. My current life title, which I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, is myself as a mothering person. I have my own children that I mother and adore, but I also similarly love other children. This started at a very early age with my own mother’s influence as an incredible nurturer in my life. She shaped the way I love those around me. I’m from a small town in West Virginia. My dad was an entrepreneur and my mom was a nurse, so I grew up in this marriage of two worlds, and now I’ve done the same in my own life.

It’s amazing that many different types of people can fit within one home. When you think of how Villedge got its start – how you got your start – what experiences come to mind?

I’ve always been a very strong-willed, almost defiant person. I went to seven different high schools – it’s not that I got kicked out, I just often wanted a change. Through that process, I ended up meeting a lot of colorful people. My group of friends liked to push boundaries. I would skip school, not come home for days, and have conversations that I couldn’t even begin to imagine my own daughter having at that age. After trying different routes, my parents decided to put me in state’s custody as a 15-year-old because they were concerned about my choices. I went there and found myself surrounded by people that were worse off than me, having gone through trauma and sexual abuse. That wasn’t something I knew much about before, but that I learned about through my relationships with these girls. Seven months in, I remember making up my mind that I couldn’t be there forever. The day I got out, I went to court and the judge said to me, “You have some options today. Your grandmother has offered to pay for you to go to a boarding school in Maryland for a year. It’s an opportunity. If you choose not to go, you’ll go home and be on probation for a year, and if you mess up again you’ll go to a higher restriction facility.”

It was in that moment that I realized I hadn’t changed that much. I still wanted to do everything that I wanted to do the year before. I still wanted to hang out with the same people and date the same guy. I asked myself, “What’s going to be different?”

I was a little wiser than I appeared to be back then because I chose to go to the boarding school. That’s where I healed. Students wanted to be there and teachers took interest in our experiences. I found happiness and health in that process. I hiked 10 miles on the Appalachian Trail and made friends with ambassadors’ daughters. My world had flipped. Those two years are who I am. I am every bit of every one person I got close with in that period of time. So much of the organization got its breath and life from my own experiences. Now that I’m a mom, I sometimes think about my parents and wonder what would I have done, and then I realize that I do know – that’s how I created Villedge.

Considering all of the experiences you’ve had, what made Villedge become a reality?

When we moved to Cincinnati, I was working with kids in foster care. I started going to their meetings and recognizing that we were giving them behavior plans, therapy, and medication, and still not seeing transformation – many of them were about to be kicked out. On a day where I had already attended five meetings, I was hungry, and I hadn’t gone to yoga that week, I found myself in a meeting with a kid I adored and 10 people from different organizations. I remember looking at him and saying, “We’re here to help you. What do you need from us?” He had no idea. In that moment I had the thought, “What do I need to be healthy?” and I remember sitting there for the rest of the meeting and making a list of those things: “I want food, I didn’t sleep well the night before, I haven’t been to yoga all week, and I haven’t seen my girlfriends from my community group.” I was stuck in this meeting having all these visions for how my life should’ve been.

From there, I started pulling kids from class and asking them about these things. I heard stories from them like, “I have a roommate at the home and I don’t sleep well because he’s up late on his phone.” “I don’t eat this food because it makes my stomach hurt. I’ve had Flaming Hot Chips today.” “No, I don’t work out. I’ve wanted to play football, but I can’t get my grades up or there’s not opportunity because I’m going to behavior school.” “No, I don’t have a community. I sit at the group home.” “I don’t really think about my future.” Across the board, none of their basic needs were being met.

Later, I went to the leadership committee and said, “I believe in holistic development for myself and I want to do the same thing for these kids through a mind, body, spirit program. Two days a week, I want to do a community group where we meet and just talk. I want to take them to a local gym to work out. I want to use your nutrition counsel and educate them about healthy habits with sleeping, water intake, how to make good food. I want to feed them.” And we did it. We began seeing transformations in these kids:

One became student body president, several joined sports teams, and overall class attendance increased. Because of this, I know that if people see what I see, and watch the hardest kids become the healthiest, there will be no question about implementing our programming. About six weeks into the pilot program, I knew that this was something I wanted to do full time.

How have things changed from a year ago to now, with you, with the kids?

I start off with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We always say that everyone needs their buckets full before they can perform. People seem to forget that “self-actualization” is at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, but we expect these kids to be able to learn when they don’t have the basics. We’ve done a really good job of filling the buckets this year, and now we have kids that are at that tier and they’re ready, but we don’t stop because a kid gets to a healthier place. We know that they are still human beings with constant levels of development that can still go higher. So, we pose the question: “How can we grow with you as an individual and help build that Villedge for you at that next level?”

We’re finally at that next level with this group of kids and new needs have emerged. I need employers that will work with them, know these kids as people, and work around their Villedge schedules. I want to let the kids know that working is a privilege, and when you show up and build your character, then you will have the opportunity to work. We are trying to do everything a parent would do for their kid.

We, for some reason, set different standards for the kids who have had the worst histories than we have for our own children, and that’s so embedded in my story that I’m a middle-class girl from a two-parent home who had to have my mother apply to college for me.

Call that enabling, but I would never have gone to college without her. She knew me and knew what I needed and when to step in. We don’t extend that same grace to these kids who start from behind the start line. I’m realizing more and more that we have to create the same expectations for both groups of children and hopefully help them all get healthier and stronger along the way.

From the outside, this looks like you work as an educator, advocate, social worker, counselor, friend, mom, caretaker. How do you find strength to care for yourself like you care for those around you?

I ebb and flow with how I do that. Some seasons I do that really well; others I don’t separate well. Right now, I’m in a good season. Let me tell you how perfectly well balanced I am [laughter]. Here’s what I’ve learned: I’m a very spiritual person and I believe that the more I can open myself up for God to work in me and work my stuff out, the more He’s going to be able to work through me to these kids. So, I’ve made myself the project. I try to spend time in the mornings sitting with God, asking about what I need today and how I can be filled up. It’s not that anything profound happens; it’s just that time where I say, “I need your help today, so I can do what I need to do.”

I try to understand that I get to do this work, and it shouldn’t feel like a burden. I’ve been giving myself permission to go out and enjoy life. Everything I’m doing for these kids, I want to be doing for myself too.

For example, I recently asked myself, “How are you creating?” From there, I made what I call my “Joy Wall.” I’ve hung cards from my husband and pictures my kids have made me. My grandmother is my namesake, and we were very close. I was lucky to have her until I was 23 years old and I gave her this book. It basically included prompts for everything I wanted to know about her. Of course, she only filled out 10 pages, and I ripped one of them out and put it right by my light on my wall. It had the quote, “To thine self be true,” which I consider to be the best advice. It makes me feel like she’s speaking to me every day through that. After saying that, she wrote, “Why would you follow the crowd when you don’t know where they’re going? What if you arrive and wonder how you got there?” She helps me lean more into my authentic self.

When you think of your own daughters, where do you think their individual strengths lie?

I’ll start with my 10-year-old daughter. She is a “mother,” too. She takes care of me, sometimes, in the questions she’ll ask, like, “You have that look on your face that you get sometimes. How are you? Are you okay?” She cares about the world and other people – she’ll share me with other kids and be right there with them when we’re all together. She’s her authentic self and able to be in any given situation. She’s so confident and brilliant – like one of those kids that makes it look effortless. She is an amazing child.

Now, not that I’m not amazing, but my 5-year-old is a little more like me. From the food she eats to the outfits she wears, she knows what she wants and goes after it. It’s as if she’s saying to us, “You can punish me, but you can’t move me.” She’s kind, compassionate, and loves to create.

Whether you’re describing yourself, your daughters, or the people that have shaped you, it’s authenticity and story that shines through. Do you find yourself returning to certain stories about the kids as you move forward with Villedge?

These kids are the most powerful human beings ever created. They are resilient and brave. They are beautiful and complicated. To have gone through some of their experiences and emerge from them with a strong and hopeful spirit is incredible. They amaze me with how little information and opportunity they need to absolutely thrive, and their stories haven’t stopped.

When I think about if the kid is where they want to be, I ask myself, “What is it about their story that I can learn from? What would a different path have looked like?” I spend time thinking back on times where things could’ve gone better and consider what we can do differently in the future. These kids are individuals, but a common thread throughout is that they often come from broken relationships. I want to surround them with the relationships they can heal within. The problem doesn’t necessarily lie within the systems, but the breakdown of families and communities. The questions are truly posed to us all as a community: How do we protect, cover, and support these kids? With Villedge, I invite the people in to be those protectors and supporters.

What would you say to someone looking to get involved with philanthropic and community-oriented work?

This organization is not my organization. I wouldn’t have gotten where I am without the volunteers and people in the community offering support and believing in this work. I’ve been really intentional these past couple months with being bold and vocal about how this is everyone’s responsibility. These kids are right here in our city within our churches, neighborhoods, and grocery stores. I am trying to create roles for everyone to have in these kids’ lives by having 16 different ways to volunteer. You can bake cakes to help us celebrate birthdays, be a secret encourager for kids that are doing well or not so well, and be a workout mentor or an academic tutor. One person does not run a village, and some days it feels like my village needs to grow. I know my superpower and I’m doing it about 15% of the time, so I’m here to help people find their superpowers too. I firmly believe that people hear these stories and everyone wants to help, and our approach is to make that easy for people to do.  

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After hearing about the influence you’ve had in so many lives, we’d like to hear you speak about a woman who had an influence on your life.  

First and foremost, it’s my mother who’s shaped my story with all the opportunities she has provided me. I’ve learned so much from the way she moves through life. I’m grateful to her for all the qualities I observed in her and how they found their way into my own way of being.

On a different level, I think of my grandmother, my father’s mother. She had eight children, and when her husband died, she took over the business, never having run one before. She was so aware of the world, and I could always talk with her about social injustice.  

I even think of my mother’s mother, who would tell my mom that everyone would be okay and just make sure to not break my spirit when I was younger. They all nurtured and built into me in their own way – they were my own personal trio of mothers.

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