A Hero’s Choice
Odion Ailemen lived amidst the constant threat of gang violence in the ancient city of Benin in Edo State, Nigeria. Intense violence, robbery, and murder were commonplace and young men in the city faced limited choices–all of them grim. You could join a gang and survive. Or you could risk being a victim, even losing your own life.
“Everybody I knew was in a gang… I never was in the gang. [It] was not easy to be a part of that environment. It was really rough,” Ailemen said.
Yet despite his own difficult choice, he remained one of the lucky few. “I survived it without being in one of those gangs. Lots of people got killed and injured.”
Ailemen lived in a struggling single-parent household. His mother worked tirelessly to provide for her family. She was a chief librarian, in control of five different libraries, while pursuing her master’s and doctorate degrees, and running a small corner store business on the side.
Ailemen’s grandmother moved in with the family to help raise him and his brothers. The young man developed a special bond with his grandmother, who taught him how to take care of himself and be responsible.
“We learned how to cook at a very young age [and] how to go to the store [to shop for food]. Everybody had a duty… She had a good routine for us,” he said.
His grandmother did everything she could to keep her grandchildren safe indoors, shielded from the countless dangers that lurked just beyond their doorstep. But Odion Ailemen yearned for an escape from the crime and violence that plagued his neighborhood. He found it in the outdoors, playing soccer and joining the Boy Scouts.
As a member of the Boy Scouts, he learned about being unselfish and the importance of helping the community become a better place. In addition to going on outdoor adventures, he and his fellow troupe members would perform community service projects.
As Ailemen got older, the core values that were instilled in him through his experiences remained intact–selflessness and courage. Along the way, however, he also developed an intense focus on making money. His pursuit of material wealth as a young adult was singular until a brush with death challenged him to rethink what was truly important.
One day, he was enjoying a relaxing day at the beach when he noticed a person drifting in the water, seemingly lifeless. He humbly shared this life-changing moment when he went to the swimmer’s rescue.
“I just got a person out of [the] water. I thought the person was dead. [It] took hours, [they] basically went into [a] coma and all of that and survived somehow.”
The experience stayed with him, humbled him, and altered his own sense of purpose.
“That’s been the most profound thing I’ve done in my life. It made me shift because I use to be [too focused on] chasing money, he said.”
After reflection, he determined that his current environment in Benin could not support the man he was becoming.
“I [was determined] to do better than the ghetto because I was schooling with hedge fund kids. It gave me the taste [of a] better kind of living, he said.”
America was always on his mind. He desired to live in a melting pot of identities and opportunities. A place where he could make a bigger impact on people’s lives.
“Everything in the world is here. Everybody in the world is here. If I want to reach the world, I have to be here. It is the land of opportunity,” he said.
Ultimately, he moved to Chicago, where he now works for Amazon as a Dispatch Driver. As he adjusted to the frigid Chicago winter months, he felt called to help the community, especially those who are in need.
“I’m always concerned about two [kinds of] people in the world. The vulnerable people: kids and senior [citizens],” he said.
In the summer of 2022, Ailemen heard about the chance to run the 2022 Bank of America Chicago Marathon as a Mercy Home Hero.
Heroes Manager Mary Connolly gave him a tour of Mercy Home and explained to him the ways we help our boys and girls. He was amazed to learn about the detailed treatment plans our kids receive daily, the education and career resources we provide, and the quality facilities that provide them with a warm, safe home.
But Ailemen was never particularly passionate about running for its own sake. Running considerable distances was part of the game of soccer, but it was a means to an end. Still, he did believe he could finish a marathon, especially with the motivation of representing an organization he believed in.
After learning about the Home and the support that our Heroes team members receive to help them reach the finish line, joining the team was an easy decision to make. In 2022, energized by Mercy Home’s mission and the cheering fans throughout the 26.2-mile course, he completed his first-ever Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
“The city got me through it. I heard my name over a thousand times, and it was an affirmation that everything is possible,” he said.
With momentum from finishing last year’s event, Ailemen wants to continue to fundraise and support our kids at Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. This March, he’ll kick off his training for the 2023 Bank of America Chicago Marathon by running the Shamrock Shuffle followed by other races throughout the year.
We always say our Heroes go the distance for our kids. But sometimes a hero goes even further than expected. We’re grateful to Odion Ailemen and all our Mercy Home Heroes for adopting our cause as their inspiration.