Meet Najamo Abukar

Meet Najmo Abukar

Resident Najmo Abukar is a shining star participating in Oakridge Neighborhood’s youth programming. But before joining in Oakridge’s afterschool program full-time in 2018, Najmo was quiet and introverted. Her younger brothers were active participants in the youth programming, but she would not consistently join in. Some arm twisting by friends, a staff member who was also her middle school science teacher, and the very persistent Oakridge youth department lead Vernon Johnson convinced Najmo to become involved and commit to regularly participating.

Now, Najmo, the oldest of five children who came from Africa when she was an infant, demonstrates confidence, leadership and discipline in all aspects of her life. She is driven, ambitious and motivated. She earns nearly all A’s at Roosevelt High School. She works over 30 hours a week as a cashier at Walmart to save for a car and to assist her mother with household expenses; with her first paycheck, she bought her brother a phone. She is also a tremendous help to the Oakridge staff, assisting with high school tutoring sessions. She has joined several educational groups to help bolster her college resume (“College is a must,” she says), including the 4-H Urban Youth Leadership Academy and Investing in My Future.

She was also selected for the Oakridge Summer Youth Employment Program. She aspires to be a nurse, doctor or surgeon, so her summer employment experience last year placed her at UnityPoint, just across the street from Oakridge Neighborhood. “I want a career where I can make a change in the world, where I can help spread hope,” she says.

With young people like Najmo poised to lead the way, we all should, indeed, have hope in the future.

Taking Their Shot

Taking Their Shot: Pair Takes Aim on Home Court

Oakridge Neighborhood resident Peter Ngo was drawn to my attention by the managing editor of an area television station. He’d received a call from Peter, saying the station only covered news from Oakridge Neighborhood when something negative happened. He wanted the newsman to know there were all kinds of great things going on here all the time, like the basketball workshops he had recently launched that numerous Oakridge youth were all about.

The editor was intrigued. So was I. So, one day this summer I made my way to Peter’s apartment, where he lives with his dad, mom and five younger siblings, to get the lowdown. I was welcomed by 22-year-old Peter, and explained why I was there. He was gracious, kind, welcoming…and tall. He looked like a guy who might know a thing or two about basketball.

Since that first meeting Peter’s goal of developing an ongoing basketball clinic for area youth has started to blossom. What began as outdoor practice with a handful of youth on the basketball court at Oakridge this summer has evolved. Today nearly 60 students are practicing at various times throughout the week, some Mondays and Tuesdays after school at Edmunds Elementary School, some Saturdays and Sundays for more extended sessions just down the street at the gym at First Methodist Church.

Keeping Peter motivated is his righthand man and best friend since grade school, Mamoud Bayoh. Mamoud exudes positivity and encouragement. The pair met over basketball all those years ago, and today are partners working to evolve their current initiative into a sustainable program, a traveling league for area youth. It’s a model that has a unique twist: students come to basketball practice AND can get a free haircut, all in one, thanks to the barbering skills Mamoud brings to the table.

Hoops and Hopes

Peter was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The Ngos moved to the United States in 2005, joining family that was living at Oakridge. Peter did not know English, so was bullied at school in those early years. He says it taught him how to stand up for himself at a young age.

Peter and Mamoud crossed paths one summer attending a church camp, around 5th grade. They started playing basketball every day. Mamoud had already been introduced to basketball fundamentals through league play, but Peter was new to the sport and his style of play was “more street ball,” laughs Mamoud. Peter recognized that his buddy was besting him by consistently making some pretty complicated shots, which frustrated him. He started asking Mamound for advice, and Mamoud in turn began to teach Peter basketball fundamentals.

The pair played with Kingdom Hoops in junior high then joined the basketball team at North High School. Junior year, Peter transferred to Roosevelt High School, and Mamoud quit basketball after the death of his father. His artistic bent led him to ultimately go into barbering – complete with house calls!

In the meantime, Peter started his basketball career at Roosevelt with all kinds of bad attitude, he says, due to the rough start he had growing up. But sometime that junior season, he had an epiphany that if he didn’t change, he wasn’t going to get anywhere. “So I focused on my grades and I focused on my school life,” he says.

The change in Peter didn’t go unnoticed; many people told him how inspirational his pivot was from being “one of the baddest kids in school with attitude to one of the humblest kids.” His game also improved. “I always had work ethic,” he says. “When I started out everyone was better than me. But I surpassed their expectations. My mother always told me with hard work you can go anywhere; she ingrained that in me.”

Peter was awarded a basketball scholarship to Mount Mercy University, but when the pandemic hit, remote learning wasn’t for him, and he decided to return to Des Moines. Today he is employed at Amazon, while working to launch his youth basketball organization with input from his pastor and others who’ve initiated similar efforts. 

Basketball for 'a Better Future, a Better Chance'

The impetus for the new venture? Peter’s siblings.

“I need to help them find a better future, a better chance,” he says. “If you can enlighten a kid they can go far in life. Basketball can have a huge impact.”

Academics is an important component of the dialogue with the students, too. “We have them write essays,” Peter says. “And if they don’t do their essay, they don’t get to join practice.” Pretty motivating for a team of kids that asks for more practice, when practice is over. “We know we are doing something right when the kids are having fun and want to keep doing it,” Peter says.

This fall, girls and boys in grades 3-8 learned basketball fundamentals and are now participating in area tournaments. Peter and Mamoud hope that if they can raise enough money, the students will be able to participate in a competitive traveling league. Ultimately the duo aspires the have their own practice facility, and to provide a source of income for their efforts.

But in the short term, they are more concerned with the basics, like providing the kids with basketball shoes, backpacks for their gear, cones, shot clocks and the like. So far the parents of the players have really pulled together to try to help provide, Peter says.

For more information, check out some practices on YouTube at @brickzlegends8600

Mamoud’s barbering skills can be seen on Instagram at @kmb_hussle

Oakridge Neighborhood: Serving Our Refugee and Immigrant Neighbors

Oakridge Neighborhood: Serving Our Refugee & Immigrant Neighbors

Over 70 percent of Oakridge Neighborhood’s residents are refugees and immigrants, a community of people gaining stability while preparing for the next step in their life’s journey. We are uniquely suited to providing our neighbors not only quality housing but also supportive programs, essential services that help them succeed and become economically independent in their quest to enjoy a secure and happy life.

Learn more here.

James Turner: Oakridge Neighborhood was “Family”

James Turner: Oakridge Neighborhood was "Family"

James Turner recalls a story from his childhood at Oakridge Neighborhood.

“I was on a bike and I tried to jump a dumpster. I cracked my head. Neighbors I didn’t know took me to the hospital. It was like that…a strong, positive community and safe. Everyone stuck together.”

Turner came to Oakridge Neighborhood as a child with a single mother. It was tough, he says, but now a grandfather, he looks back fondly on his years here.

“There was a sense of family right away. Sister Margaret Toomey embraced us. It felt good to be there.

“My mom worked hard. We were at Oakridge six or seven years and were able to move out, but she didn’t want to leave the support and what felt like family. It was a great place to start, to bring your family and build it up.

Turner went to North High School, where he excelled in athletics. “I gained a lot of confidence growing up in Oakridge because I saw a lot of tough times but people believed in me.”

Now Turner is in the position to pass along confidence and belief in others, not only as a father who worked to teach his own children to be “respectful and honest” but also through his career with Des Moines Public Schools, where he’s served for over 20 years. As an associate at Weeks Middle School, “I really like communicating with kids and giving them guidance and positive advice.”

He is undoubtedly making an impact on numerous students, in the same way Oakridge Neighborhood changed his life. “Oakridge impacted my life tremendously…the commitment people had to us meant the world to us. I will never forget.”

Hear more from James here.

Oakridge Neighborhood is home for nearly 1,000 residents, with over half of those being under 18 years old. To help make a difference, donate here or please contact Kristin Littlejohn, klittlejohn@oakridgeneighborhood.org or 515 | 244-7701. 


Shoulders We Stand On

Shoulders We Stand On

President and CEO Teree Caldwell-Johnson was the keynote speaker at a special 2022 Black History Month Celebration which included Governor Kim Reynolds signing Iowa’s African American History Month Proclamation.

Here are Teree’s inspiring remarks:

Our gathering today calls us to the high ground of our ancestors that said in a purifying love that passed all understanding that nothing could keep us from each other and the sun.

It is in this – the enduring essence and spirit of Black History and the opportunity to lift up those that have both paved the way and made a way – that calls us to this time and this occasion.

I was thrilled when I received the invitation to participate in today’s celebration and asked to share a few words on today’s theme – The Shoulders We Stand On. 

Emulating History

In so many ways today’s theme emulates the history – the struggle – the resilience and the collective triumph of our people – a people brought to this country in bondage on a slave ship that docked at Port Comfort, Virginia, over 400 years ago in the year 1619.

While painful and often times uncomfortable, Black History must be acknowledged as part of American History for you to see – understanding Black History allows us to fully and completely embrace our shared history as Americans.

And celebrating it serves as a loving, humbling reminder that we stand on the shoulders of giants – giants who were not “slaves” but who were enslaved.

Giants who were both bought and brave – sold and strong.

Giants who embody what it means to be resilient; a resilience that paved the way for many shining examples of Black brilliance to emerge – indeed a level of bold and brave Black brilliance that transcends both time and circumstance.

A brilliance that allows us to stand tall and without apology claim our rightful place in history and the many accomplishments that can be attributed to Black people and the Black race.

There should be no doubt –

I – You – We – stand on their shoulders!


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The phrase Standing on the Shoulders of Giants was first used in 1675 by Sir Isaac Newton in a letter where he states – “If I have seen further – it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Since then, this phrase has become a part of our lexicon and our everyday language is filled with analogies and metaphors alluding to shoulders.

Think about it:

People who are facing a hard challenge are told to “square their shoulders” – “shoulder the load” and “put their shoulders to the wheel.”

Friendly or gregarious people are ones with whom we like to “rub shoulders.”

And uncertain people “shrug their shoulders.”

While superstitious people “throw salt over theirs.”

Insensitive people “turn a cold shoulder” and proud or arrogant people have a proverbial “chip on their shoulders.”

Blunt, honest people “shoot straight from the shoulders.”

While sports heroes, after a tremendous victory or accomplishment, are “hoisted on the shoulders of their admirers.”

And finally, admirable people “stand head and shoulders above” everyone else and wise people, wise people are described as “having a good head on their shoulders.”

Have you ever thought that perhaps we have all these sayings about shoulders because so much of our everyday experience relies on either us or others having broad, flexible, strong and steady shoulders? Ones we can lean on – others that we can cry on, some that will carry us and without question – multiple sets of shoulders we can STAND ON!

I am sure that each of us can call to mind those persons in our lives upon whose shoulders we stand. For many of us this includes parents, coaches, pastors, close friends, favorite teachers, mentors, elected officials, community leaders and historical figures.

As we reflect back upon our lives, we know we would not be where we are today were it not for those “giants” who hoisted us on their shoulders and opened our eyes to new vistas of promise, possibility, and potential.

In the African American community, we celebrate the achievements of our ancestors, their legacies, and how we are connected to their work and their gifts with the phrase,” We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.”

And like a sculpture, a quilt or a colorful tapestry that is slowly crafted together, piece by piece, so are the achievements and legacies of Black people in this country.

And without waxing philosophical, perhaps it is a universal truth to say that none of us can birth an idea alone, nor nurture a school of thought without the support of many others.

The fact that we “stand on each other’s shoulders” is a representation of the ongoing and enduring oneness that spans the generations while connecting our past with our present as we position and plan for the future.

Throughout our history, certain men and women have changed us forever. Some of them are famous figures, like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, and others are hidden heroes. It’s their struggle and strength that remind us of the rich legacies of our race and our people.

By standing on the shoulders of their greatness we too can manifest our own greatness in ways both big and small. It’s that notion of iron sharpening iron – those heroes and she-roes past and present upon whose shoulders we stand are like the silent champions who walk in our midst – testing our mettle and giving us the strength and courage to carry on.

Lessons Learned

When we stand on the shoulders of giants, I believe we stand on three things:

1. Lessons of History

2. Lessons of Others, and

3. Lessons of Experience

Let’s talk for a moment about standing on the lessons of history.

As we celebrate Black History Month in 2022, let us benefit from the perspective that history can bring. We are not yet the nation that we seek to become, but we are also not the nation we once were.

History can be considered an early warning system and our history is replete with examples of ordinary individuals making extraordinary efforts to move the nation towards racial equality.

We’ve all heard the ago-old adage: history repeating itself. When we choose to study history, we tap into the lessons of our past which provides the opportunity to avoid making the same mistakes.

Now let’s focus on “stand on the lessons of others.” Black History Month serves as both a celebration and a powerful reminder that Black History is American History, Black culture is American culture, and Black stories are essential to the ongoing story of America – our faults, our struggles, our progress, and our aspirations. Shining a light on Black History today is as important to understanding ourselves and our communities as it has ever been.

That is why it is essential that we take time to celebrate the immeasurable contributions of Black Americans, honor the legacies and achievements of generations past, reckon with centuries of injustice, and confront those injustices that still fester today.

And finally, let’s briefly talk about “standing on the lessons of experience.”

Our nation was founded on an idea: that all of us are created equal and deserve to be treated with equal dignity throughout our lives. It is a promise we have never fully lived up to but one that we HAVE never and SHOULD NEVER walk away from.

The long shadows of slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining, and the blight of systemic racism that languishes still today, holding us back from reaching our full promise and potential.

But by facing those tragedies opening and honestly, talking about it, teaching it, embracing it and working together as one people to deliver on America’s promise, we become a stronger and more perfect version of ourselves.

When and only when we lift up and stand on the lessons of history – the lessons of others – and the lessons of experience will we truly be able to validate, honor and dignify those that came before us – the heroes and she-roes on whose Shoulders We Stand On. 

Think about it – who isn’t still inspired by Martin Luther King’s oratory, commitment to racial justice, and his ultimate sacrifice?

Or by the tenacity and fortitude of William and Ellen Craft or Henry “Box” Brown, whose cleverness allowed them to escape from slavery.

And who can’t draw substance from the creativity of Madame CJ Walker or the audacity and courage of prize fighter Jack Johnson?

Who could not continue to battle hate and injustice after listening to the mother of Emmitt Till share her story of both sadness and perseverance?

When life and circumstances get in my way, I take solace in the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, or Gwendolyn Brooks.

I find comfort in the rhythms of Louie Armstrong, Sam Cook or Dinah Washington. And I draw inspiration from the anonymous slave who persevered so that the culture, Black culture, could continue.

I believe that Black History Month continues as a beacon of hope, light and inspiration in part because of the ultimate giant whose shoulders we stand on – Dr. Carter G Woodson, the found of Black History Month.

Experiencing Black History Month as Woodson envisioned it reminds us that history is not dead or distant from our lives.

Black History – and its celebration throughout February – is just as vibrant today as it was when Woodson created it in February of 1926 – 96 years ago. Black History Month helps us to remember there is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history.

And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering the shoulders upon which we stand.



Mike Hill: The Mayor of Oakridge Neighborhood

Mike Hill: The Mayor of Oakridge Neighborhood

Mike Hill is known as “The Mayor of Oakridge.” It’s no wonder.

The long-time facility director at Oakridge can regularly be seen being stopped by residents to chat – about their home, the weather, or goings on in the neighborhood. People look to Mike, and he’s there for them.

“I feel real good about the place,” Mike says with pride. “I’ve spent 2/3 of my life there. I have a sense of respect for the place.”

“I look at ways I can help,” he says. “I feel good when I come in and can help touch lives of the kids and adults by providing maintenance, answering questions, talking with them.”

Like so many of those that work at Oakridge Neighborhood, Mike’s position has become more than just employment. It’s a way of life and a service to others that has become part of the fabric of Mike’s life.

A Long-Term Relationship

His relationship with Oakridge started even before Mike was old enough to have a job.

“I had family members who lived there,” Mike remembers. “It was a nice place to go, to hang out at the basketball courts. It still is.”

Mike began working at Oakridge 40 years ago, starting as a groundskeeper. Today Mike is responsible for maintaining the quality living conditions of Oakridge’s 300 Section 8 housing units, plus 30 senior living apartments at Silver Oaks.

“When I first started Oakridge was a little rough around the edges,” he says, remembering a period in the 1980s when Oakridge struggled with gang and drug activity. “The property was a work in progress, maintained but not where it should have been.

Margaret Toomey, who was a nun, was the head of it,” Mike says. “Her interest was children and their living conditions and what to do to keep the property up. She had a vision still relevant today.”

That vision included beginning to introduce some of the many wrap-around services that today distinguish Oakridge from similar housing neighborhoods across the United States. That has expanded into a robust portfolio of human service programming, including adult workforce readiness/development, family case management, financial literacy, ELL and citizenship classes, early child hood and preschool, student enrichment for children grades K-8, plus summer employment programming for 14 to 21-year-olds.

“We’ve advanced in what we have to offer,” Mike says. “We’re more than just housing, so kids can envision more for their future than they used to.”

Giving Thanks

As a result, Mike says many Oakridge residents are parents who go to work or school, thanks in part to the on-site childcare provided right on the Oakridge campus.

When they advance and make progress in life they always come back and say thank you to people that helped them,” Mike says. “Oakridge gives them a sense of hope; we give them the opportunity to know they can move on that will help them through their journey in life.

” A lot of young men and ladies looked up to the maintenance crew as father figures,” Mike says. “Many come back and thank the crew. A lot of them did really good. They got degrees and became providers for families.

“Lives change because Oakridge offers so many programs, ownership, pride,” he says. “We’re a safe, clean, loving neighborhood. Come and see us, check out our programs, talk with our residents and staff. This is a really nice place.”

Hear more from Mike here.

Employees like Mike help make Oakridge Neighborhood home for 1,000 residents, with over half of those being under 18 years old. To help make a difference, donate here or please contact Kristin Littlejohn, klittlejohn@oakridgeneighborhood.org or 515 | 244-7701.