Fresh from university, Oluwatosin Adebisi received inspiration to offer community service while meditating one morning in 2019.
“I was having my devotion one day when I received the idea of Operation Write Well,” Adebisi said.
After she was posted to Rivers State for her mandatory NYSC, she witnessed how indigent pupils grappled with educational support, which further stoked her deep-seated passion to support children’s education.
Poverty remains higher in Nigeria’s rural communities, affecting 72 percent of the rural population, according to the 2022 National Monetary Poverty Line. The dire financial straits have led tens of thousands of children to drop out of school, while many lack adequate educational materials for study.
Seeing the challenges facing rural children in the community she had been posted to prompted Adebisi to execute her vision.
“So I started out with my personal CDS (community development service). I met some of the needs in the community. I was able to donate two beds to the health center, one delivery bed, and organize sensitization on girl child care. I raised the funds for the projects from the same community, from the churches and well-to-do people in the community,” she recounted.
Thus, she tested out her Operation Write Well idea during this time to help children with crabbed handwriting.
“After my service year, I was in Osun State, it came to mind again and that was how I started. Operation Write Well deals with helping pupils and students with illegible writing,” she said.
Adebisi started the Smiley Educational Support Foundation in 2021, drawing on her vision and her NYSC experience. Officially registered in 2022, Smiley Educational Support Foundation is motivated by the Sustainable Development Goal of increasing quality education in under-resourced communities within Nigeria, doling out textbooks, biros, school uniforms, bags, and notebooks to students with needs. Much of the initial funding came from Adebisi’s personal funds.
So far, Smiley has partnered with a number of schools within Nigeria’s west, including Lagos and Kogi State. As Adebisi explained, getting the resources to students who are in need of their help entails a series of research and verifications.
“Sometimes, we have the opportunity to visit communities, conduct surveys to assess the situation, and propose solutions. Last year, we visited Egbeda in Ogun State. The school we saw was conducted under a shed made from palm fronds, with students using tables and chairs borrowed from church furniture. And we provided bags and other support materials,” Adebisi recounted.
“At times, we receive calls regarding the needs of people. Upon getting these calls, we verify their authenticity. Additionally, we acquire information through referrals; individuals in a school we’ve assisted recommend our help to another school facing similar challenges. We also engage in partnerships with schools.”
Children’s Day: Makoko Boat
On Children’s Day, Adebisi and her team visited Makoko, a riverine community constructed on stilts within a lagoon off the Lagos mainland, where canoes serve as the primary mode of transportation.
“We were in Makoko Community on May 27th this year, where we celebrated Children’s Day. Information gathered from the schools revealed that schoolchildren face challenges in attending classes. In Makoko, a slum surrounded by water, one of their main struggles is the lack of a boat. To reach the school, they must pay for boat transportation.
“So, when we got there, aside from taking pencils, biros, and school bags, we saw the bigger problem. And that is how the donation of a boat came in. We were able to donate a medium-sized boat to them for the Children’s Day celebration,” Adebisi said, beaming with a smile.
With a team of 37 volunteers, Smiley has also organized love-related programs such as Teens Chat and Get It Right. Talking to these adolescent students, Adebisi and her team members expound on love and the virtue of abstinence.
Just as Smiley’s reach has expanded, so has its funding, which now includes donations from volunteers and organizations. “We engage in crowdfunding through flyers, sharing our mission and activities to garner support. Additionally, we have received backing from organizations that have partnered with us. Looking ahead, we aspire to secure more support, recognizing that increased resources will empower us to better meet the needs of out-of-school children,” Adebisi said
This continuing support has led Smiley to help more than 10,000 schoolchildren since its inception in 2021. And with its new scholarship scheme, Smiley “has been able to enroll three schoolchildren back into school this year. Two of them are orphans, while the third is a widow’s child,” Adebisi said.
Notwithstanding its widening support, funding remains a major challenge, according to Aro Mubarak, the content lead at Smiley Foundation. Cultural restrictions and laxity among volunteers, as Mubarak mentioned, stand in the way too.
“Smiley’s goal was to reach 20 thousand children, but they were only able to reach 6 thousand children in 2023. We need more volunteers; presently, in Lagos, we have just a few active volunteers who are devoted,” Mubarak said.
Adebisi, who majored in agricultural extension and rural development, is now pursuing a master’s in social work, a testament to her passion for grassroots communities and their development.
“I love interacting with children, seeing their smiles, and envisioning a future where the Smiley Foundation becomes a household name, benefiting children in various communities,” she said.