At 23 years old, Odunola Ojewumi of Beltsville has already survived a heart and kidney transplant, battled cancer and founded a nonprofit organization that helps support low-income women pursuing higher education.
Ojewumi started Project ASCEND while attending the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2011 and has helped fund a summer camp for 100 local girls and scholarships for five women attending college. In February, she was honored by the Clinton Foundation, former president Bill Clinton’s nonprofit, and recognized at the Clinton Global Initiative University event March 21-23 for her work in the community.
“My destiny is to help people,” Ojewumi said. “My life is not here to be idle. I was not saved for no reason.”
Ojewumi was 11 years old when she had a double organ transplant because of a heart condition. She said the experience and the resulting health implications motivate her to make a difference in her community and to make every day count.
“People die five years after heart transplants. They’re very sensitive organs, so I could be dead tomorrow,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about my mortality.”
Ojewumi, who graduated from the University of Maryland with a government and politics degree in 2012, said she realized the need for an organization like Project ASCEND while attending High Point High School in Beltsville. She said she saw a generation of young girls slipping through the cracks.
“It was either you get pregnant, you go to work or you try to go to the community college, and I had a lot of friends drop out of community college,” she said. “I wanted to be a source of assistance for young girls so they could believe they could go to college and do more with their lives.”
Ebony Marcus, 18, of Laurel was one of Project ASCEND’s first scholarship recipients and now attends Towson University. Marcus said the scholarship, which helped her purchase books for school, motivated her to work harder.
“It’s a good feeling to know all your hard work has paid off,” she said. “That’s what Project ASCEND is about; it rewards people who work hard.”
Ojewumi said her scholarship program started with a $5,000 award from an MTV contest, which grew to $13,000 through additional grants from companies. She said she is regularly applying for grants, networking and using social media to raise funds for her organization.
“It’s very frustrating running a nonprofit and trying to convince people to give you money and trying to convince people to care, because we live in a society where it’s all about you,” she said. “It doesn’t stop. The hustle does not stop.”
One of Ojewumi’s childhood friends, Shawanda Neal, 23, of Silver Spring said her friend is known to work even through health setbacks that are common with transplant recipients.
“Any opportunity she has, she takes it. She’s the true meaning of a go-getter,” she said. “She’ll be in the hospital with her laptop, figuring out ways to get money.“
As Project ASCEND received more funding, it sponsored additional initiatives such as a White House speaker series for young men at High Point and a textbook donation to an education program in Cameroon, Africa, Ojewumi said. Ojewumi said she hopes to keep expanding the organization, and that her next goal is to raise $15,000 for domestic and international efforts.
“Project ASCEND is a work in progress,” she said. “We need to work on fundraising, and we need to work on getting into the community more and making the community responsible for the young people here, as opposed to us trying to do this on our own.”