A Tribute to our Friend and Colleague
Wood’s Homes lost a friend and colleague on October 25, 2019 in a tragic incident. Debbie Onwu was a hard-working and well-respected member of our work family – and we feel her loss.
One of the ways we felt we could pay tribute to her is by sharing the story of her remarkable life.
Painting a picture of Debbie Onwu’s life would clearly require some essentials – an abundant palette of brilliant colours, a keen sense of adventure, and a brush-stroke that radiates boldness, confidence and a joie de vivre.
You see, Deborah Chizoba Onwu lived a full life – a life rich with passion, sweet song and wanderlust in her heart.
Born May 9, 1972 in Enugu State (Southeastern Nigeria), Debbie’s world was one of generosity, spirituality and compassion.
Wood’s Homes would like to share this tribute to Debbie – our friend and colleague – who lost her life in a tragic incident a month ago. We will never forget her.
In a sit-down on a recent sunny morning, Debbie’s sister Nancy Uwangue nobly attempts to describe her big sister. She is pensive and tender with her words.
“Debbie’s dream, you know, was to own a home for mentally challenged children - to work with those less privileged.”
She gave her life to caring for others, says Nancy, adding that she fully believes her sister’s early years of helping to raise her seven siblings led to a career of serving vulnerable people for more than two decades. She is remembered as hard-working and utterly dedicated.
“When I asked if she ever considered a change of careers, she said: ‘Nancy, I am not doing this for the money. This give me comfort’.”
Debbie was the oldest of eight children, born to loving and industrious parents with solid careers in government. Sadly, her mother passed from a sudden heart attack at just 42. Nancy says the loss was particularly devastating for Debbie as “they were best friends . . . she was always mum’s favourite.”
Following her mother’s passing, Debbie took it upon herself to “take control” and share the responsibility of raising her three brothers and four sisters. “She became like our mother.”
Nancy tried to convince her sister otherwise. “I told her you don’t have to do this, but Debbie never said no.” Family meant everything to Debbie – she did not compromise in supporting them with whatever they needed – both financially and physically. She surrounded her siblings with her love and full attention.
Nancy reminisces about growing up in a large, rambunctious household with parents who brought in extra help to ensure the children were well cared for. Her father worked extremely hard to ensure that all of his children were university-educated.
“African parents make that decision. You just go along with it,” says Nancy, whose own career in the United Kingdom involves managing large projects for British Telecommunications.
She shares a deep admiration for her father who was always there for the family and "who did not remarry all those 17 years. We are all so happy now because he has met someone.”
Debbie was very spiritual, a regular church-goer who loved to sing. “We’ll miss her voice.” And she was a gifted listener, says Nancy. She would “listen to what people told her with great patience.” She’d listen carefully, “and then try to point you in the right direction. But if you decided to go against her she would allow you to make that mistake, too.” She was “not one to argue.”
And although serious-minded and disciplined, Nancy says Debbie did have an indulgence: Clothing!
“Debbie loved shopping,” says Nancy. And never one to shy from wearing vibrant colours – turquoise, corals, yellows, pinks and greens were all among her favourites. Each outfit tastefully paired with matching jewelry, eyewear and of course, shoes. “All 300 pairs of them!” Debbie had an appreciation for the finer things.
She was educated at the Institute of Management and Technology in Enugu State, Nigeria, where she also earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Lagos, and attended both Humber College and Centennial College in Toronto.
Thirst for adventure led to many travels in her lifetime. “My sister visited every part of Europe, Dubai, many African countries and several U.S. states. She was supposed to go to New Zealand next year.”
In 1999, Debbie made her way to Canada, first to Toronto for several years, and then eventually making her way to Calgary – her home for the past eight years. She was briefly married and had no children.
“She had always wanted to come live in Canada. I don’t really know why,” says Nancy. We do know she was familiar with our national sport, having played (ball) hockey for many years growing up. “I remember once she came home with such a swollen foot after being hit during a game. My father would say, ‘Why don’t you just stop playing that game,’ but Debbie never stopped,” Nancy says shaking her head. She loved it.
And despite being so far removed from family, distance was never a problem. “It certainly did not stop Debbie from making the decisions in the family.” She was in constant touch with her siblings, and would regularly share sister-to-sister chats with Nancy by phone or through WhatsApp.
“We were very close,” but Nancy admits she is different than her sister. She doesn’t relish travel like Debbie did, and prefers quieter moments reading and studying. As the mother of two young teens, Nancy says her children were very fond of their Auntie Debbie. “If I disciplined them for something, they would just call Debbie and try to explain things. Debbie would then call and say to me: ‘please, for my sake, let it go’.”
“You know Debbie had a good life.” She was an intelligent, colourful and creative soul who received her wish to remain in Calgary – a city she came to call home. “She was my best friend.”
More than 1,000 people came out to celebrate Debbie’s life at various services and this came as a surprise to Nancy. “Debbie was actually a very private person" - but she must have left an impression.
She certainly did.
Wood’s Homes would like to thank Nancy Uwangue for permission to share her sister Debbie Onwu’s life story.