Personal experience drives Horizon Scholarship winner to help children with disabilities

NOTE: This is one in a series of stories on Brock’s inaugural Horizon Graduate Student Scholarship recipients. To read other stories in the series, click here.

For Nneka Onyeachonam, the line between personal and professional has long been blurred.

The Master of Applied Disability Studies student has been working in the disability field for more than 15 years, using her knowledge to help families, including her own, navigate what can be a difficult path.

Two of Onyeachonam’s own children have been diagnosed with disabilities, helping to fuel her passion to make a difference.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, Onyeachonam was named one of 20 inaugural recipients of the Brock Horizon Graduate Student Scholarship, presented to high-achieving graduate students from Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and other under-represented groups.

Originally from Nigeria, Onyeachonam’s family came to Canada in 2005 when she was a teenager. She spent her first years in the country working to help support her family before beginning an early childhood education program in Toronto in 2007.

As part of her studies, Onyeachonam did a practicum at a local not-for-profit, the Reena Group, which provides residential and day programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

The experience opened her eyes to the lack of opportunities clients had to partake in volunteer employment opportunities. She took it upon herself to create a new program, building partnerships with Old Navy, the Salvation Army retail stores and local homeless shelters that allowed her clients to gain employment experience, both paid and volunteer.

After Onyeachonam became a parent, her perspective changed yet again. She began to notice what she thought may be developmental delays in her first-born son. A professional assessment led to a diagnosis of mild autism.

Onyeachonam began using her training in behaviour therapy to help him make real gains.

Soon after, her daughter faced her own diagnosis — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Despite the challenges of working and studying full time, all while caring for three children, Onyeachonam refused to slow down.

She started using her skills to provide behaviour therapy to other African-Canadian families who had children on the autism spectrum.

“The African community often expects perfection from their children,” Onyeachonam says. “When children have disabilities, it is all very hush-hush. There are many stigmas and stereotypes, and many families won’t admit their children need help.”

Her own experience as a parent has helped her to build rapport with families, and, despite any initial hesitations, she finds her work is now well received.

“With my education, experience in the field and children with disabilities of my own, they trust me to help them. I am making great progress with all my families,” she says.

Onyeachonam feels receiving the Horizon Graduate Student Scholarship, which includes a one-time award of $5,000, was validation of her hard work.

“I was so happy to win this award,” she says. “I called everyone I knew to tell them. These funds will help provide some financial relief for me. As a single mom, there isn’t a lot of extra money to go around, so this support is greatly appreciated.”

The scholarship fund will provide $1 million to graduate students over the next 10 years, with 20 recipients chosen annually from research-based programs. The scholarship is intended to help Brock attract top researchers and students from various fields while building a diverse and inclusive university community.

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