After changing careers and countries, Odo Nkum feels she has reached her destiny.
Odo (she has asked that she be referred to by her first name) left Ghana about 10 years ago to come to Canada. She worked for a while, but had a vision of changing careers to provide mental-health support to women and children in BC. She studied at the Vancouver School of Theology, then came to TRU to earn her Master of Education, with a focus on leadership.
Keen to get back to working with people, she pushed through the program as quickly as possible.
“I did it in a bit over a year. I did not take a break,” she said. She graduated in January 2017.
“The program was very deep in terms of discussions and everything. I had wonderful classmates and colleagues who were pretty knowledgeable. One of the beauties of TRU is having people from all over the world. So people came in with different perspectives. I had colleagues who came from different diversities,” she said.
After graduating, she gained hands-on experience working with mental-health clients in one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She worked with the UBC Graduate Students Society and the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“When I worked in the Downtown Eastside, I realized mental health always had something to do with addiction, to do with poverty,” she said.
“I’m a Christian. I believe that God intentionally calls people to do things.”
Taking the lead
The Talitha Koum Society in Coquitlam needed an executive director, and Odo landed the leadership role she had been seeking.
The society is a non-profit that gives women with addictions a safe place where they can build healthy lives by accessing a 12-step program, life skills training and a nurturing community.
“I never thought that I would be here (Talitha). It’s been a blessing and it’s a learning process. I see addiction, poverty and all that as a generational cycle,” said Odo.
“Somebody in the generation has to break the cycle. It takes extra love. It takes somebody who truly feels called. I just want to give love. I feel that’s what I am created to do.”
Even her name, Odo, means love in her native Twi dialect. It’s as if she was destined for the work she’s doing.
She understands the stresses her staff experience because she’s done similar work herself, and she believes that makes her a better leader.
“I know what every staff feels because I’ve been there. When you’re in leadership and you’ve walked in the shoes of your team before, you’re able to work with them, beside them,” she said.
“I find women working in this field tend to get overwhelmed. It’s a lot of emotion, draining. We have trauma counsellors here, we work with social workers and everybody. You find it’s draining hearing people’s stories and see how broken people have been.”
Recognized in her community
Odo was recently recognized as a Community Champion by Coquitlam MP Ron McKinnon. The award highlights dedicated leaders and community volunteers who are making the area a better place.
“It was a surprise, quite frankly. I got a call, it was the MP who called and said congratulations. It never occurs to you that people see your work. And in this time of COVID-19, I didn’t think anyone saw anything, because we don’t go anywhere,” she said.
“It was huge. I was never expecting it. I’m the type who works behind the scenes.”
She learned at TRU to be careful that she herself doesn’t get burned out, and Odo watches that her staff aren’t overburdened, too, especially during the pandemic.
“It’s very difficult being a leader around this time. And in this field. Lots of overdoses, COVID deaths, etc. I have to have an open door. I have to be willing to listen. I have to be available Not only for the clients, but also for the staff,” she said.
She shared a lesson she learned after she graduated from TRU.
“Things might not make sense while you’re in school, but they almost always will make sense. You’ll find when you’re in the field working, that’s when you actually see and understand things better.”