For many children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected, the streets become their refuge. But youth using the streets for their livelihood and shelter are not only endangering themselves, they also pose a threat to urban civilization in developing countries.

In Nigerian cities, for example, hordes of children who should be in school flood the streets selling cheap goods, newspapers, and often their own bodies. Violence, gangs, and drugs are part of their daily lives. With 206 million people, Nigeria has the largest population of any African country. And with a median age of 18.4 years, it is also one of the youngest and fastest-growing nations in the world. Unfortunately, the country also has 8.6 million homeless children on its streets and 10.6 million children not attending school.

Around the world, there are approximately 150 million street children, including 2 million in the U.S. alone. Research suggests that as many as 45 percent of children in Latin America live on the streets, a staggering proportion of children who are supposed to be the future of the continent.

These are alarming numbers: Homelessness causes severe trauma to children and youth, putting their health and safety at risk and hampering their development. It also creates a population of outcasts who cannot contribute productively to society.

“It is really hard being a street kid, having to look after yourself in very severe conditions at such a young age,” says James Okina, who started hanging out with street children in Nigeria at age nine after his parents separated and he was left to his own devices. “I know what it feels like, and I don’t wish it for any kid.”

Recognizing Potential in Youth

Luckily, Okina’s cousin helped him turn his life around. After being involved with gangs, when he was 15 years old he started his own social enterprise called Street Priests, which provides a safe space and rehabilitation program for street kids. The organization has helped 3,300 children since it was founded.

“We decided on this name because we are like priests, but our church is on the street and our calling is to help children who have no one else,” he explains.

Okina knows from experience that without aid the chances of survival or having a normal life are very slim. What he admires about the children are their resilience and the hope that burns in their young hearts, even when their dreams, talents, and potential for development have been disrupted.

“We have all sorts of greatness walking the streets in the form of these kids, and ignoring them would be our biggest mistake,” he says. “Remember that the Boko Haram we have today were once kids that were not engaged positively.”

Okina is one of more than 300 global teen leaders being nurtured by the flagship We Are Family Foundation (WAFF) program called Three Dot Dash, of which SAP is the key sponsor. Named after the hit song written for pop group Sister Sledge in the 1970s, WAFF promotes the vision of a global family through programs that nurture and mentor visionary young people who are changing the world positively.

Creating a Safe Space for Street Children

Okina was recently awarded a sizable grant by the SAP Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team. Half of the grant will be spent on leasing a facility for Street Priests in Calabar, Nigeria, where volunteers create programs that combine social and emotional learning. Until now, Okina and his team used spaces provided by churches to run this program, which reduced their efficiency and the number of children they could serve. “This grant will allow us to steepen our impact remarkably,” he explains.

The other half of the grant will be spent on Okina’s other project No Existe, a youth-led organization for street children in Latin America. The project uses a three-pronged approach that starts with research to compile data that can then be used to influence policies and create documentaries to raise awareness, then segues into community action to drive change. The next phase of research is scheduled to take place in Brazil and is being crowdfunded through GoFundMe. By collecting the personal stories of children, Okina and his partner Isaac King, who was abandoned as an infant by his drug-addicted mother, hope to gain firsthand insight into gaps in the system that prevent street kids from getting more support from government agencies.

Research they conducted in the Dominican Republic last year showed that lack of firsthand data creates a conundrum. Authorities are aware of the global statistics and scale of the problem, but combatting child homelessness is still mostly uncharted territory, leaving policymakers, governments, and communities at a loss on how to proceed.

Charting the Future

Okina likes to quote Nelson Mandela, who once said that the character of a society is revealed in how it treats its children. In fact, traditional African society was characterized by families in close-knit communities where family functions were patterned on core values and behaviors. Children were treasured and protected and cared for by other family members if their own parents were unable to provide for them. Traditionally, there was no need for orphanages or other childcare facilities. But due to wars, urbanization, poverty, and a variety of societal disruptions, that is no longer the case.

“We live in a world where millions of children live on the streets. That is not OK,” Okina says. He is dedicated to improving the quality of life for these children and to inspiring individuals, corporations, and governments to act urgently. His message resonates deeply with his peers and youth everywhere.

After all, the future won’t create itself; young people must take an active role.

“We may be only 25 percent of the population, but we are 100 percent of the future,” says Melati Wijsen, another of the global team leaders, who Okina met through the WAFF program.

Alexandra van der Ploeg, head of SAP CSR, believes programs such as the WAFF Three Dot Dash initiative are instrumental in supporting young leaders reach their full potential to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

“We are proud and humbled to support young leaders like James Okina,” she says. “Through incredible commitment and determination his organization Street Priests has turned around the lives of many street children. James is already an accomplished leader today. We have much to learn from young leaders like him, and in turn we can support them by developing their organizations into the best they can be.”

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