At home and work, she advocates for children with special needs
Chigozie Odediran, a special education attorney, sat with a frazzled mom to discuss her legal options. The mom had been informed that her teacher’s licenses were to be revoked because she failed to complete ongoing training missed while she cared for her special needs child. Chigozie pulled out pictures of her autistic son, Tishe, and offered words of encouragement: “Look, I’m just like you. I know the pressure and understand what you’re going through.”
The firm helped the mom renew one of her licenses. This teacher is one of many parents and educators Chigozie helps with her skills and empathy. Chigozie practices law in Texas to use what she knows to benefit the lives of families with special needs children.
Facing her son’s challenges
Chigozie, her husband, Femi, and their one-year-old son, Toba, moved from Nigeria to Washington, D.C., in 2007. There, she graduated from Georgetown University with a master’s of law in business and international law. They planned to return to Nigeria after Chigozie completed school but lingered for Toba. He was getting a Christian education, which his parents loved, and making lots of friends. They stayed and soon were very glad that they did.
When Chigozie got pregnant with their second son, an early ultrasound spotted abnormalities on his brain. “In Nigeria, they just don’t have the technology to detect and treat genetic disorders,” Chigozie says. “We were so grateful we stayed.”
After careful monitoring and lots of prayers, her second son was safely delivered. He had a deleted chromosome and an added chromosome and was diagnosed with WAGR syndrome. The condition predisposed the baby to develop Wilms tumor (a tumor of the kidneys) and required regular ultrasounds.
Although he has autism and medical complications, the baby’s condition could have been worse. Chigozie considers him her miracle baby and named him Tishe, “‘God has done it.’ In Nigeria, our traditional names have a lot of meaning. Tishe is a testimony, and I was willing to give up everything and just face him and his challenges,” Chigozie says.
Instead of working, Chigozie diligently researched diet, therapies, and schools. “Because I’m an attorney and attorneys tend to over-research, I learned a lot!” she says. Within a few years, Chigozie wanted to share what she learned with other moms of special needs children. Her research led her to AVVO, a website where users post questions and receive legal advice. Because of her research, she noticed questions about special needs students in schools and responded to one. Immediately, an education lawyer of 40 years messaged her with a job offer. “He said, ‘You seem to know what you’re talking about, and I’m swamped with work. Do you want a job?’”
The offer seemed like an opportunity to support fellow families of special needs children. Chigozie decided to put her law degree to work on behalf of families with special needs in Williamson County, where she and her family had just moved. “There are a lot of situations and emotions that come up when raising a special needs child that you don’t expect,” she says. “And I wanted to help other moms know that those feelings are okay and those problems have solutions.”
Studying and surgery
Because lawyer’s licenses don’t transfer from state to state, Chigozie had to retake the bar. She devoted herself to studying stacks of legal books, diligently reading every page. She took the test after months of studying but, to her horror, failed it.
She decided to take it again while working full time and being a mom to two kids. All the while, Femi was working in Australia as an international engineer, traveling back and forth every month. It was a stressful time for the family. Chigozie found it difficult to study as much as she wanted to. But her studying was about to come to a standstill.
A few weeks before the bar, Tishe’s routine quarterly ultrasound to check for kidney cancer came up. The technician spent longer than usual and then said what no parent wants to hear: “I need to get the doctor.” The doctor informed the family that the ultrasound had revealed cancer.
During the emotional car ride home, Toba started crying, “Is Tishe going to die?” The parents reassured him as they struggled with their own fears. “It was such a dark time, we couldn’t even pray. We reached out to some friends, and they prayed for us,” Chigozie recalls.
Two days later, Tishe had a pre-surgery ultrasound that confirmed the doctor’s insistence on haste—the cancer had already doubled in size! Tishe had successful surgery that day, and chemotherapy was scheduled. Unfortunately, it was set to begin on the day Chigozie was scheduled to retake the bar.
“There is no way I was going,” she recalled, “but Femi encouraged me to go.” He told her, “You have already studied so much, and you will always wonder, ‘What if?’ if you don’t.”
She arrived at the test center heavy with hesitation. She had barely studied the past two weeks and felt guilty for not being with Tishe. “I walked in among all the young, carefree-looking summer students and felt very out of place. I felt like a bad mom,” she says. “I prayed, ‘God, this is on you, now.’ And I hoped and prayed that something good would come out of this.” Despite the turmoil at the time of the test, Chigozie passed the bar with exemplary work. One of her essays was even chosen to be used as an example for the students studying to take future tests.
A new child and a new season
A day after the anniversary of Tishe’s surgery, Chigozie and Femi had a third baby—a healthy baby girl. “At the time of the surgery, everything was dark. And one year and one day later, everything was light and celebratory,” she says. “That is why we named her Jola, which means ‘child that is created in wealth.’” Jola’s English name is Jacey. “Toba means ‘God is King,’ and Jacey is “healer,” so Tishe is completely covered,” Chigozie says.
Tishe’s year-long chemotherapy was arduous Although the chemo was successful, and Tishe can attend school and church again, he will continue to get quarterly MRIs and CT scans. In many respects, he looks like a child with normal abilities, but “even though cancer isn’t written on Tishe’s face,” Chigozie says, “he isn’t able to do what many other children can do.”
This reminds Chigozie of why she pursued working on behalf of special-needs families. She has been able to pray for her clients and to empathize with their struggles. She remembers her Why on difficult days—to help moms who are going through the same trials.