There’s a national fellowship program that brings young, African leaders to college campuses across the U.S. UW-Madison is one of the schools that partners with the Mandela Washington Fellowship. The most recent group included Folajogun Akinlami of Nigeria. For more than a decade, she’s worked in media and advocates for people with disabilities. She wanted to share her experience, and introduce us to a friend she made while in Madison.
The first time I heard about Madison, Wisconsin was when I received mail that I would be part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program. Once I arrived, five of us went to Gigi’s Playhouse, a Down Syndrome Achievement Center for our community service. We were to volunteer there for six weeks and I really couldn’t wait to meet the kids.
Before long, the children started arriving and we were all in class. I noticed a lady sitting across the table who wouldn’t take her eyes off me. I smiled and asked for her name; and looking down, she introduced herself as Haley.
I tried to check out what she was drawing, and she hid it. To my surprise, when it was time for our weekly pictures, Haley stood right next to me. The following week at the “Teen Tastic” activity, we took turns in selecting our favorite songs and we danced to it together. When it was Haley’s turn she chose ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and she said “I’m dedicating this song to the most beautiful girl in the world, and I’m pleased to know that I am dancing with you. This is to Fola my best friend.”
I suffered polio as a child, and I have mobility issues. Not once have I ever considered myself “the most beautiful girl in the room.” But Haley stood there, in a room filled with people and she said I was the most beautiful girl in the world. Tears filled my eyes as we danced to the song and later that evening, she introduced me to her mom, Alana.
Our last week at Gigi’s Playhouse was the hardest. We did our final dance session and Haley dedicated all her dance steps to me. She could really dance! When it was her turn to choose a song, she chose her favorite. This time the tears that I have been trying to control all afternoon flowed freely. Haley chose Katy Perry’s “Never Really Over” and she danced her heart out. Such a young girl, so much innocence, so much energy, so much love!
I saw myself through Haley’s eyes and I knew I was worth all the love. The way she loved me made me reassess and reevaluate myself. The purity and sincerity of her love taught me how to love myself even more. I knew right there and then that she chose the right song, “It’s never really over”. I love you dear Haley, and I miss you so much.