From Estelle to Echelle: How It All Started

From Estelle to Echelle: How It All Started

From Estelle to Echelle: How It All Started

By Juste Codjo, Ph.D.
President & Co-Founder of Echelle-Benin

I’m Dr. Juste Codjo, an assistant professor at New Jersey City University. I’m also the President a Co-Founder of Echelle-Benin, a non-profit student empowerment organization registered in Benin (West Africa). The story I’m about to tell you is one that inspired me to commit to a humanitarian cause, ultimately leading to the founding of Echelle-Benin.

It all began in the early morning of February 27, 2016, when a young lady named Estelle was riding her scooter on one of the busiest roads of Cotonou (Benin’s largest city). Halfway to her destination, she fell and lost consciousness. For two hours, Estelle lied on the ground. Many people drove by, walked by, and stood by, but none of them assisted her. When the emergency services finally arrived at the scene after more than two hours, it was too late: Estelle was dead. She was 37 years old. She left behind three little beautiful children, whose father also died a year later.

Estelle had big dreams for herself, her family, and her community. Having dropped out of middle school to give birth to her first child (who would later die at age 4), Estelle would later enroll in night school, and eventually completed her high school education. Despite difficulties to make ends meet, she decided to pursue a college degree in sociology. She succeeded but would never see her diploma: she died just one day after passing the final exams for her bachelor’s degree.

Estelle was not just focused on herself and her family: she was actively engaged in her community. In fact, she died on her way to a meeting with members of Helping Hands International (H2I), one of the many non-profit groups she was involved in. Believe it or not, between her jobs, her studies, and her duties as a single mother, Estelle still had time to care for others and volunteer in her community. She was a leader and a fighter. In a Facebook post following the news of her death, one of her associates at H2I wrote: “Estelle, you are and will always be a fighter that we’ll never forget.”

I know all this information about Estelle because she was no stranger to me: she was my younger sister. Ever since she passed away, I have been searching for closure. I have struggled finding answers to the many puzzles related to the circumstances of her death. As a former firefighter myself, I keep wondering why it took more than two hours to the emergency services to come to my sister’s rescue. As a former soldier who served my country for nearly two decades, I cannot understand why so many people drove by or stood by without offering any assistance to my sister. Above all, why is it that this young lady, who had been working tirelessly to create a national chapter for a humanitarian organization called “Helping Hands International,” could not receive a helping hand when she needed it most?

In search for answers, I logged into a Facebook group that Estelle had created in 2015. There I found several posts from her that clearly outlined what appears to be an inspiring legacy of her short life. On Feb. 17, 2016, just ten days before she passed away, she posted: “Every moment in your life, you need to repeat to yourself: ‘I will see it through even if I have to break walls; even if I have to jump over fences.” In another post just five days before she left us, she wrote: “Do not hang onto money. Work to learn. Don’t work for money. Work for knowledge” (quoting Robert Kiyosaki). The most touching was what turned out to be my sister’s last post to our Facebook group: “You must keep dreaming, keep wishing for big things, and keep pursuing your goals because nobody will do it for you.” 

More than a life legacy, I considered Estelle’s last words to be a call for action. It quickly became clear to me that she would want me to turn our family tragedy into an opportunity for others. The only way to do that, I thought, was to continue her work. Luckily, she once described her work in a response to a question posed by a member of our Facebook group in the following terms: Humanitarian aid, personal development, professional training, scholarship, and sponsorship. Reading these words made me think of a vision: empower the youth in Benin and beyond so they can achieve their dreams and build their communities. Having worked in government for most of my adult life, I have no experience in the non-profit world. So, I reached out to a group of dedicated friends. That was the beginning of a journey that led to the founding of Echelle-Benin.  

At Echelle-Benin, we aim to coach and mentor students to become self-reliant and committed to transforming their own lives and building their communities. We offer a paradigm shift, moving away from the limited power of the handout of material goods and money towards the sustainable impact of change envisioned and realized by the individual and the community itself. We promote the values of personal responsibility, volunteerism, and global partnerships

The word “Echelle” means “Ladder.” Our motto at Echelle-Benin is thus to serve as a ladder of success to students and their communities. By doing so, we hope to help Estelle’s legacy last.

Estelle is calling for help again. This is our chance NOT to drive by or stand by!
By supporting us, you can help keep her legacy alive and make the world a better place!

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