Vanguard (Lagos)

3 January 2010

Nigeria: Aiyegbeni Shares Christmas Spirit

Nigeria forward Yakubu Aiyegbeni could have spent his Christmas Day with his family at home, taking a well-earned break from the hectic schedule of a Premier League footballer.

And he would have been well in order, especially with games coming thick and fast during the yuletide season, and the African Nations Cup barely two weeks down the road.

Instead, the Everton star took his young family to Clair House hospice in Wirral, where the residents are young boys suffering from conditions which means they are permanently in wheelchairs.

The 3.5 acre hospice complex is home to young people with life threatening or life limiting conditions and their families from Merseyside, Cheshire, North Wales and the Isle of Man.

They play wheelchair football under a scheme run by Everton.Unprompted by anyone at his club, Yakubu had telephoned hospice staff to arrange a visit and enquire how he could go about making a donation.

Even before his arrival, the kids were already frantic with anticipation. Gathered together by the entrance, three young friends speculated on how the superstar footballer would arrive.

"Do you think he'll come by helicopter because of the snow?" asked one of them excitedly. "No, he'll probably come in a Ferrari with his own driver," said his pal. "I can't wait to tell him we play for Everton," said the third, clutching a football.

When he arrived, in a black 4Ã-4 as it happened, the boys stopped racing each other in the snow and came inside to meet him.

Yakubu had brought along his new wife Yvonne and their 10-month-old daughter Kayla to see the hospice, which opened its doors to children in December 1998.

Among the rooms he was given a tour of is the multi-sensory room, an interactive, stimulating environment where children can relax on a heated water bed and the hydro pool and Jacuzzi room.

Lastly he was taken to the Butterfly suite, a room brightly lit by the winter sun which overlooks a private garden at the hospice's rear.

This is where young residents are taken after they have died. It's where the Claire House care continues until the time for their funeral.

Families are free to come and go as they wish and bring photographs, posters, toys and bed linen into the room. It is where they say goodbye, in less traumatic settings than a hospital ward.

"This is a really happy place," said Yakubu, as he got back to the reception after signing autographs for the young footballers.

"When you think about it before you come, you imagine people crying and a sad atmosphere but it's a happy place and the kids are smiling. Seeing that makes me smile."

The Yak was greeted with smiles, which soon grew wider as the relaxed player chatted amicably with youngsters and charmed volunteers .

Volunteers fussed over Kayla, as Yvonne smiled and asked polite questions about the facilities.

"I was looking on the internet and saw this place," says 27-year-old Yakubu. "I had the opportunity to come here and see these young kids and give something back. It's a dream come true. I'm happy to give what I can afford to give to them."

Yakubu, from Benin City, plans to set up his own football academy to help poor children in his own country, similar to team-mate Joseph Yobo's charity.

"I am looking forward to doing things like this back home," he says.

"I will go back to Benin and Lagos and help young people to realise their dreams.

"Unfortunately a lot of them don't have the opportunity to do that. I am very pleased to be able to encourage them and give them a boost."

Yakubu has only recently returned to the Everton team, after recovering from an Achilles injury so severe it ruled him out of action for a year. His period on the sidelines gave him time for reflection, as did starting a family with Yvonne.

"When you grow older you have more experience in life. I see on TV and listen on radio about kids in the world who have nothing. How they live is unbelievable," he says.

"I got injured for 10 months and I couldn't do what I love to do. Then you see young people, like the kids here, who can't do what they want to for whatever reason it makes you sad.

"Back home some of the kids are very poor and are stuck in a rut. I want to give them a helping hand.

"I'm lucky that Kayla is happy and healthy. She's a lovely kid and is doing really well. Yvonne is so supportive and for me it's the best feeling in the world."

Yakubu's contribution was a significant boost in what has been a lean year for the hospice, which relies entirely on charitable support.

His visit brightened everyone's day - even if he didn't arrive by helicopter. He now heads off to Angola, where he will try to warm Nigeria hearts with some Nations Cup match-winning goals.

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