When she considered going on a mission trip last year, Tara was curious to see how Hoboken Grace could make a lasting impact on the opposite side of the world, in Sierra Leone.
“My heart was set on Africa,” she said. “I’ve always had a passion for Africa … And [the question of] how we could support or work with Sierra Leone was very exciting.”
Located on Africa’s west coast, Sierra Leone is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, with 70 percent of its people living in poverty. The country is still recovering from a civil war that began 25 years ago and ravaged the country for nearly a decade. More recently, the Ebola outbreak created a humanitarian crisis and precipitated further weak economic growth. Nearly 4,000 Sierra Leoneans died of the virus itself, but experts say thousands more died of medical neglect as the epidemic taxed the country’s poor health care infrastructure.
In 2014, the Hoboken Grace community raised nearly $30,000 to help World Hope International provide critically needed medical supplies when the Ebola virus brought Sierra Leone to a virtual standstill. Even as the outbreak waned, interest in supporting the country on a long-term basis grew. So, last May, an eight-person team from Hoboken Grace toured Sierra Leone to see how the church could support World Hope’s staff during future mission trips, including one next year from Feb. 8-16.
During the first few days of the trip, the team got a chance to explore Freetown, the country’s capital, and meet some of the locals. World Hope took the team on a tour of various programs, starting with Enable the Children, which supports children with developmental disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Though Sierra Leone is a bastion of religious tolerance, with several represented faiths and few conflicts, old superstitions endure. Children with disabilities are typically mistreated and abandoned. Others face neglect; many parents lack the crucial support systems and resources necessary to help children with disabilities prosper.
“How are they going to get anywhere or go anywhere?” asked Tara. “They don’t have paved streets that you can easily pull a wheelchair through … They have additional challenges that we don’t have here.”
The Hoboken Grace team visited physical and occupational therapists, seeing firsthand how Enable the Children helps families with disabled children. The organization’s effect is palpable: Within only a few months, there is a stark contrast between the children who have received help and those who haven’t.
“You could just see the drastic difference,” explained Christina. “One child [was] sitting up and able to write and talk. The other one [could] at least sit up and hold things. And the last one [who had not yet received help] was just lying in his mother’s arms; however, they [Enable the Children] had a special chair they had put together and were fitting to him.”
Following their visit to Freetown, the team moved into the country to explore other partnership opportunities. There, a new picture began to unfold.
“We would be out in these rural towns, where they didn’t have running water and they didn’t know where they were going to get their next meal,” said Tara. “Yet these people were extremely happy. And they were joyful for life. And they were appreciative of everything they had.”
Automobiles are a rarity on Sierra Leone’s largely unpaved roads. The locals get around mostly on foot or motorcycle. So when a car drives into town, a ripple of commotion makes its way through the village.
“You always had people run up and surround you,” said Tara.
Kids were particularly welcoming, flocking to the team almost as soon as their van pulled in.
“We were walking through a town and exploring, and we went walking down a path,” says Tara. “I remember somehow we started singing. The kids don’t speak English for the most part, but they would repeat after us. So Emily and I started singing kids’ Bible songs, and there were easily 30 kids behind us singing along and walking down the road.”
Out in these rural communities, the team explored other ways Hoboken Grace could support World Hope. They learned about a motherhood support program, village sponsorship — helping develop infrastructure improvements such as digging wells — and a project that would help communities plant and harvest pineapple plants.
Ultimately, however, the team saw the most potential in supporting Enable the Children’s staff. Starting with the February trip, future mission teams will help organize the organization’s annual beach party, where families with disabled children have the opportunity to meet one another.
“These moms and dads and families get to see that there are children out there who have these disabilities,” Christina said. “They’re not alone, even though their village might treat them like they are the only person in the world.”
“When the team reflected on what kind of partnership would best fit Hoboken Grace, we saw a unique opportunity to help World Hope celebrate these children, who are so often ostracized in their communities,” said Tara. “Really celebrating their lives and bringing people together, that’s exactly who we are as Hoboken Grace,” she said. “We want to celebrate big and we want to celebrate loudly. And we saw partnering with them as a way to bring people to recognize and love these children.”
And while the team went to Sierra Leone looking to make an impact there, Tara and Christina said the people they met left an even bigger impression on them.
“It changed my whole view of being career-driven,” said Christina. “There are bigger things in the world that you will want to do outside of [your career]. … Focus on the community and the people surrounding you, so you can make an impact on them or they can make an impact on you.”
Tara also said she came back with a greater sense of community, and the role we can each play — whether here or on the other side of the world. There’s something special about traveling somewhere with a group of people and sharing that experience with your own community, she said, while also seeing how you can impact someone else’s.
“You could see how we could make an impact,” she said.
In just a few months, a team will head to Sierra Leone to help throw a beach party on the other side of the world. They’ll celebrate Enable the Children’s staff and the families they care for. And just as Tara envisioned, they’ll celebrate big, and they’ll celebrate loudly.