Education means a lot to Tajudeen Bakare.
As a volunteer, "Mr. Taj" has tutored students at the Second Ward Community Center, 50 Ross St., since its inception in 2008 and has led a STEAM club there since 2017. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.)
It was education, Bakare said, that transformed him from a Nigerian immigrant arriving in the United States in 1978 to an engineer and part-owner of Columbus-based Consultants Inc., where he leads and supervises bridge projects and provides technical and management support on other projects.
"When I came to this country, I had nothing. I came with nothing," he said. "I came to this country for education, which my country couldn't give me. ... I was determined. ... I had to pay for every single dollar (and) penny of my tuition."
He graduated from the City University of New York and the City College of New York with degrees in engineering.
His volunteer work at the Second Ward center "is not for me. It's for the community. It's for the kids," he said.
"And I don't want any kids -- I don't care if they're black or white -- I don't want any students to struggle the way I struggled," he said.
Bakare said when he arrived in Delaware in 1994, he saw what was going on in the Second Ward -- children "roaming around, doing nothing in the evening."
"That is what pushed me to say, 'OK, I have to make a difference,' " he said.
"I was a kid once. But I came all the way, 17,000 miles, to come here to get an education, and these kids, they're wasting their lives. ... I'm going to live in Delaware and not let that happen," Bakare said. "That's what pushed me to do what I'm doing."
He said he tutored students of all grade levels four nights a week in English, math, science, reading and writing after the Second Ward center opened -- and continues to teach there.
"If any kids need my help, I'm here. If any kids call my name and say, 'Mr. Taj, I'm struggling doing this, I want to have an education,' I would jump for joy and say, 'OK. Let's do it.' And that's what I brought in here," he said.
Debora Mbatudde is a Delaware Hayes High School sophomore and president of the STEAM club's student board. She participated in the Second Ward center's tutoring program and remembers when Bakare got the idea for the club.
"He said, 'I'm starting a new program.' ... STEAM wouldn't be here without Mr. Taj. It was his idea," Mbatudde said.
Since then, the club -- open to students in grades K-12 -- has grown to about 45 students who meet each Monday and two Saturdays a month at the center.
Its activities have included a weekly series of projects, plus trips to colleges and science expos, visits from educators and specialists in technology, and travel to competitions inside and outside Ohio.
Its accomplishments include first-place finishes at a L.E.A.D. STEM Expert Symposium at the Columbus Metropolitan Library and a SIMPLR STEAMShip League Competition in Westerville. The team also had second- and third-place finishes at a STEM expo in Groveport.
The club also will take part in the COSI Science Festival, set May 6-9.
Jaclyn Reynolds, COSI director of communications, said the event will be held for three days at about 100 locations in 19 communities, including Delaware, before moving to COSI, 333 W Broad St. in downtown Columbus, for the final day.
A STEM Star was named in each participating community, she said, with Bakare the recipient in Delaware.
At the Second Ward STEAM club, students are grouped by grade level: K-3, 4-8 and 9-12.
Activities vary among the groups, ranging from working with LEGOs for the youngest students -- which Bakare said introduces engineering concepts -- to programming robots for the older students.
The high schoolers, he said, also spend time preparing for ACT and SAT precollege admission tests.
One recent project at the center was constructing small wooden bridges designed to hold many times their weight.
Looking at the slender wooden pieces that would form the bridge, some students protested, "This can't even carry 16 ounces," Bakare said.
"I said, 'No. That is what engineering is all about,' " Bakare told them. When the bridges were finished, he said, they could hold 1,000 times their own weight.
"They could not break them. They could not demolish them," he said.
The project was directly related to classroom education, he said.
"I keep telling the kids when I was in college, I was still going back and using the same fundamentals I learned in high school. 'Force is mass times acceleration.' All this stuff. You have to go to the basics," he said. "Fundamentals are what they learn in elementary school, then high school. They know what is force. They know what is reaction. They know Newton's Laws of Motion. Just basics."
The Second Ward Community Center is a nonprofit organization that provides services free to all program participants from anywhere in the city, director Karriejoi Coit said.
At a date yet to be scheduled, she said, the Second Ward center will be renamed the Unity Community Center, to indicate that people from all parts of the city are welcome there.
Bakare said the center operates using grants and donations, and the STEAM club didn't travel long distances to contests last year because money for transportation wasn't available.
Anyone interested in donating to the center or its programs may email Coit at email@example.com.
Bakare said his sons, Ameen and Azeez, received full college scholarships. Ameen graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a degree in engineering; Azeez graduated from Ohio State University's school of architecture.
Bakare, a naturalized U.S. citizen, said he had planned to return to Nigeria by now, but his sons convinced him to stay.