BY DOUG FEINBERG, AP BASKETBALL WRITER
NEW YORK (AP) — Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike have always valued education.
So it’s no surprise the Stanford graduates wanted to do something to help educate girls in their parents’ homeland of Nigeria. The WNBA stars launched a fundraising competition Wednesday that’s open to middle and high school basketball teams across the U.S. The goal is to raise money to support UNICEF programs focusing on girls’ education and empowerment.
The eventual goal is to give one million girls in Nigeria access to quality schooling by providing scholarships for female teachers and establishing safe places for girls to learn. The U.S.-born sisters, who became the second set of siblings drafted No. 1 in a major sports league – joining Peyton and Eli Manning – figured they could use their clout to help get it done.
“We want to be able to give back to Nigeria, and UNICEF is a great way,” Nneka Ogwumike said in a recent phone interview with The Associated Press. “We were blessed with an incredible education that we want to make sure others have an opportunity to have.”
The mass kidnappings of schoolgirls in the African nation have added a sense of urgency to the sisters’ desire to help. They had planned to get involved with UNICEF before the kidnappings, and were distraught to hear about the 300-plus girls taken in the remote northeast area of Nigeria in April.
“Everyone knows we’re Nigerian and that’s a huge part of us and our culture,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “To be able to extend our basketball connections to help others is great. The most important thing we can do is help educate people and we understand that’s a lot bigger than what we do on the court.”
Since 2012, teachers and students have been increasingly targeted by extremists, resulting in killings, abductions and threats. Many schools have been bombed, set on fire or attacked.
Nigeria has 10 million children out of school – the highest number in the world, according to Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. She said the money raised will help with child protection, access to education, quality education and training teachers.
“These two young women understand that they’ve been given an amazing opportunity,” Stern said in a phone interview with the AP. “They’re very reachable and want to be a part of it, not just finance it.
“They want to motivate others to be a part of it. They want to build a movement, that’s what they are trying to do here. They want to be leaders in that movement.”
The team competition rewards those who sign up the most donors. The top prize is a private basketball clinic with the sisters.
“The biggest thing we want is for the kids to have fun with it,” said Chiney, the top pick in the WNBA draft by the Connecticut Sun in April. “Whatever there reason is for getting involved we support it. If you care about meeting Nneka and I, you can get donors. If you care about bring our girls back, go get donors. If you care about playing basketball and want to do something fun, you can get donors.”
Other prizes include autographed jerseys, pictures and the chance to interact with them via Google Hangouts.
“At the end of the day, this could be an annual thing that becomes huge and impacts the relief fund we’re trying to help,” said Nneka, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks.