First tragedy, then inspiration
By Alex Branch
The purpose of Tonychris Nnaka’s life revealed itself with the death of his sister.
He was the youngest of 10 siblings — and the only boy — but his sister, Light, 12, was closest in age. She was his playmate and best friend while growing up in Nigeria.
She died of a waterborne illness, which could have been treated in a country with a stronger health system.
“Watching her die was something I had never experienced,” Nnaka said. “I decided whatever I do in life, it must relate to saving lives.”
That purpose eventually led Nnaka to UNT Health Science Center, where he is earning his master’s degree in public health, while also founding in 2016 an elementary school to give Nigerian children a chance at a better life in his home country.
Stallion Hall School has grown from a school with seven students to almost 100. Its curriculum emphasizes math and science, health education, and has a sub-curriculum designed for special needs children.
“If my sister had been in a school that taught her basic hygiene principles to keep her from getting an infection, she could still be alive,” Nnaka said. “Or even if more people in our community were better educated about basic sanitation, she could still be alive.”
How did he do it? Nnaka arrived in North Texas at age 17 with a full scholarship to study in the United States. He earned his bachelors of science degree in nursing from the Honors College at the University of Texas at Arlington.
After college graduation, Nnaka landed a nursing job in the acute care unit for cardio-thoracic surgery at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. He earned a generous salary. He watched colleagues rent large apartments in trendy neighborhoods and purchase expensive cars.
But that first year, he rented a studio apartment, ate meals at home and saved his money – almost $20,000.
With the help of a friend in Nigeria, he found land to buy and, continuing to set aside money from his nursing salary, built the school. One of his sisters, who holds a master degree in education, is the school principal.
“The money you make in America can go a long way in Nigeria,” Nnaka said.
Nnaka enrolled in the UNTHSC Master of Public Health Program in 2016. After graduation in May, he plans to apply for medical school and, one day, become the head of a U.S. hospital system.
He plans to grow his school in Nigeria into a secondary school that also accepts older children.
“My dream since we lost my sister was to do something to help save others,” Nnaka said. “I feel blessed to see my dream becoming a reality.”