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The Big Heart and Beautiful Smile of Obioma OfficerStory by Kimberly Bonéy Photo by Kara Stewart
Obioma Uzoigwe Officer was nervous about the idea of playing a character in The Cascade Theatre’s presentation of Hairspray in April of 2012. “My mom kept me in church, so I was much more comfortable singing there than I was on stage,” she says. Singing for God was virtually inherent for Officer, but finding a way to channel Motor Mouth Maybelle, a character who struggled against racial injustice in the 1950s, would take a bit of a push.
Director Jana Leard and co-choral director Trish Harris believed in Officer’s ability to embody the strength of Motor Mouth Maybelle. Officer watched the movie several times, and tried to imagine what the characters in the play were fighting for. She thought about her own struggle with racial injustice as a child. “I grew up in Pleasant Hill, in the Bay Area, in a predominantly white area. I remember knocking on my friends’ doors and their parents always making up an excuse as to why their kids couldn’t come outside to play with me,” she says.
Recalling these painful memories and considering all she has overcome in her life, Officer found a way not only to channel Motor Mouth Maybelle, but to become her.
Looking at the vivacious 31-year-old woman with the beautiful smile, the big voice and the even bigger heart, it’s hard to imagine that all she’s endured hasn’t managed to inhibit her joyful and loving spirit. What’s even harder to imagine is that this young woman is a mother to seven children and a grandmother of one. “Obi,” as she is known to virtually everyone, hasn’t given birth to any of her own children yet, but it hasn’t stopped her and her husband Nathaniel Officer from providing a loving home to seven kids that needed their love more than anything. “Family isn’t about bloodlines - it’s about love,” Officer says with conviction.
The Officers’ first four children, Tonisha (21), Carolyn (16), Benjamin (14) and Jasmine (10), are biologically Obi’s sister’s children. Talisha Placide, Officer’s sister, 14 years her senior, had always looked after Officer as a second mom. “We spent a great deal of quality time together as I was growing up. My mom was essentially a single mom, and she had to work to provide for us. Talisha stepped up and took care of me whenever I needed it.”
As Placide began to struggle with extreme depression and other physical ailments, the Officers offered to help by opening their home to Placide and her children in October 2005, just six months after the young couple was married. Placide’s illnesses were complicated and it became clear that she would need more assistance than the Officers could provide, and she was ultimately admitted to the hospital. Placide wanted nothing more than to provide a good home for her children, but her illness made it virtually impossible for her to be the one to provide for them. While in the hospital, she asked the Officers to take care of her children.
Officer remembered the love her sister had always given to her. She recalled the room in their house that she and Nathaniel had set aside for their future children. She knew, in that instant, that God had planned for that room to become a safe place for her sister’s children. The Officers decided then and there that they would take responsibility for Tonisha, Carolyn, Benjamin and Jasmine and love them as their own. When Placide passed away from complications from her illnesses in 2010, she went with the knowledge that her children were in safe, loving and capable hands.
For a young couple with four children, calling their daily routine “hard work” doesn’t begin to scratch the surface. But the Officers have struggled along and kept their promise to Placide. The Officers had both seen examples of their parents giving all they had to provide a good home. Obi’s mother, Lizzie Uzoigwe, struggled to provide for her girls, and Nathaniel’s parents, Brian and Debbie Officer, had five biological children and six adopted children of their own. In 2007, Nathaniel’s father was diagnosed with cancer. When it claimed his life in 2009, Nathaniel’s mother didn’t know how she could manage the responsibility of raising the five children who still lived at home on her own. With the potential for three of those children to be sent back into the foster care system, the Officers had another decision to make. They decided to take in Danielle (17) in April 2009. Marciano (11) and Manuel (9), who are biological brothers, were taken in by the Officers in July 2011.
The Officers have both had their share of experience in dealing with emotional disturbances and disabilities. Nathaniel is an instructional assistant for the Special Day Classes at Sequoia Middle School. Obi is an American Sign Language Interpreter for Shasta County Office of Education. Obi mastered American Sign Language (ASL) as a child when she suffered hearing loss due to severe ear infections. “I used to watch a show on television called ‘Say It With Sign.’ That’s where I began to learn about ASL.” Obi struggled to hear until middle school, when surgery improved her hearing. Obi took classes in ASL at the high school level and majored in deaf studies at Ohlone College in Fremont. During her college years, she was “socially accepted into the deaf community.” She has worked with deaf students at The California School for the Deaf in Fremont and has experience working with children with autism. She proudly serves as the deaf ministry leader and lead interpreter at City Church in Redding.
The skill sets gained in their respective professions would prove beneficial for the Officers, not only at work, but at home. Each of their seven children has dealt with emotional disturbances. The Officers have taught their children to manage their emotions and struggles through accountability, mutual respect, responsibility, trust, making reasonable choices and by simply loving one another.
As the dust has begun to settle and the children have begun to overcome their complicated pasts, they have each found something to embrace in their lives. Tonisha is a proud mother to a 2–year-old boy, Josiah. Carolyn, who also played a role in the 2012 production of “Hairspray” and sang a duet on stage with her mom, has fully embraced the performing arts. She was a performer at the Madrigal Dinner at Shasta High School and can often be found singing her way through the house. Benjamin plays four instruments and can’t wait to master a new one. Jasmine was singing before she could even speak. Danielle, who has sought to prove stereotypes wrong, was one of only two girls to play on Shasta High School’s football team in 2011, playing quarterback and receiver. She is considering a career in criminal justice. Although she is not hearing impaired, Danielle has a particular penchant for ASL, just like her mom. Marciano and Manuel, the youngest of the bunch, have talked about becoming firemen or police officers – something they would never have even considered or discussed a year ago. “I want to celebrate my kids. I love nothing more than hearing them say, ‘I did it, Mom!’” Officer says proudly.
When asked how they are able to manage their very busy lives, the Officers admit: “It’s not by our own merit. It really does take a village to raise kids.” They give God all of the credit and are ever grateful to their church friends, who have become more like family in helping to provide love to their children. “When we first embarked on this journey, we admitted one thing to ourselves: We didn’t have a clue,” Nathaniel says.
“It’s amazing what a gift God has given to us in those kids,” Officer adds. The Officers find that looking forward to a weekly date night helps them to make it through the hectic nature of the week. Officer explains it simply: “If we don’t find time for us, there will be no ‘us.’ And if there is no ‘us’ there is no ‘them.’”
During the production of “Hairspray,” as Officer opened her mouth to sing the aptly titled “I Know Where I’ve Been,” the words aligned perfectly with her struggle. The transformation from Obioma Uzoigwe Officer to Motor Mouth Maybelle took place. And the crowd stood in awe and wonder at this woman’s ability to bear her soul on the stage.
profile Share the Love The BIg Heart and Beautiful Smile of Obioma Officer Kara Stewart Hairspray Jana Leard Trish Harris Sequoia Middle School Shasta County Office of Education American Sign Language City Church