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Honorary UCA Teachers For The Day

Hey all!  Lucky us- our new place at Vivien’s has internet in the evening hours, which means more frequent blog updates.  We feel so spoiled!  We had a great day at UCA today.  We’d hoped to get to the school right as it opened this morning, but unfortunately there was another miscommunication about our ride and we ended up getting there around recess time.  Also unfortunately Christine has come down with some sort of bug, so she ended up sleeping in and joining us a little later (only to sleep on Pastor John’s hard floor because she still felt sick…but luckily staff said a prayer over her stomach).  She went to bed early tonight and we’re all hoping she’ll wake up feeling 100% tomorrow. (Update: she got up and is munching on some PanPan…or, the Lebenese version of Pringles….and an orange, so things are looking up for her 🙂

We were all looking forward to becoming honorary UCA teachers for the day!  Katie and Ali started in the seventh grade classroom, which has only 9 students.  Ali’s 5th grade class in DC had made cards for the UCA students with surveys on the inside so the students could learn fun information about one another.  They handed those out, then had those students fill out the same surveys to take back to Ali’s class.  We’re hoping this can be the start of a great relationship between the two schools.  They did the same thing in the 6th grade classroom, then made their way to the 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms for spelling and math games and of course songs.  Meanwhile, Sean took his National Geographic donated maps to other uppergrade classrooms for some really great lessons and geography related games.  The students were incredibly engaged and were very thankful for the new additions to their classroom walls (thanks National Geographic!). 

After spending some quality time in each of the classrooms, it was time to meet with the administration of United Christian Academy.  We were really looking forward to hearing both the successes and challenges of UCA straight from the teachers.  It was a very productive meeting, as we were able to learn about and prioritize the needs of UCA teachers.  One of the main priorities we discussed was the need for professional development.  We’re greatful to have a full teaching staff at UCA who stepped up to the plate to educate the children of Swaggart Island, but they are currently lacking official teacher training.  Classes are offered at universities around Liberia and the teachers are incredibly anxious to get the proper training to better serve the UCA population.  FUEL Youth is currently brainstorming ways to help pay for this, as it is often expensive and unaffordable for teachers.  Other concerns addressed at the meeting that we hope to tackle include:

  • Electricity and a generator for the school.  Once this is accomplished, we can put lights, air-conditioning, computers, and other appliances to use.  It will also allow for an adult night school at UCA in the evenings.
  • Bridge construction.  In order to get to Swaggart Island, many students have to cross a bridge across a small waterway.  During rainy season, this is nearly impossible due to current bridge conditions.
  • Water well. Currently, there is no clean drinking water at the school.  Students have to walk 25 minutes to the nearest well to obtain the necessary drinking water. A chlorination system and pump need to be put in place to make the current well suitable for drinking.
  • Textbooks for older children and a library for the school and community.  Lack of appropriate books is a serious issue facing UCA and Gardnersville in general.  Students in the older grades have no textbooks to use, while students in the younger grades find it difficult to develop a love of reading without fun and engaging books in their hands.
  • Lunch program.  Because UCA doesn’t currently have the funds to provide lunch for the students, school dismisses at 12:45 so they can eat.  This cuts off a solid few hours more that students could be spending learning in school. 
  • School nurse.  Lack of sufficient medical care is another issue faced by the Gardnersville community.  Often times, kids are sent to school ill, only to be sent home by the staff because they’re so sick.  Unfortunately, there’s no one home to meet them because parents have left for the day.

We also met with members of the community and parents of students, who echoed the needs the teachers laid out.

As Edward mentioned at the meeting, his dream for UCA was a 5-year plan. So far the school has enjoyed 2 successful years. But there’s a lot more work to go in the remaining three, and in 2010 we’d like to have a big blow-out dedication for the school. FUEL Youth will be looking at the ways and means that we can best support the development of UCA. We’ll be updating our project page on the school from our home website in the coming weeks.

The UCA staff, administration, students, and parents feel like one big extended family and are so very warm and welcome to us all. We’ve really enjoyed our time at the school, and some of us have enjoyed it so much, we’d like to spend some extended time teaching there. We will see what the future brings.

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Day 8: STAR Radio

Happy Monday!  We had a great futbol-filled Sunday evening last night.  We were walking home from our go-to restaurant P.A.’s when we noticed a futbol game getting started right outside our home.  It was a really nice evening- not too hot- so we decided to pull up a seat and check it out.  This greatly excited the children playing and more kids came out to join us to cheer the teams on.  We then decided to get a full on soccer tournament going, so we ran inside to get Ali’s old soccer trophies she brought along to give to the winners.  The boys were incredibly talented with their futbol skills and it was a blast to watch.  There were 4 teams, and each of them ended up getting either a trophy or medal, which thrilled them to no end.  We’ve got some great shots of the kids’ victory dances and celebrations.  This evening we got to check out the neighborhood girls’ kickball tournament, which was equally as entertaining.

This morning we woke up and made our way to UCA to visit each of the classrooms.  We’d planned to start obtaining all of our video footage, but ended up just visiting with the teachers and students and pretty much just getting an idea of life at United Christian Academy.  After spending time at the school, we made our way back to Broad Street, the heart of Monrovia. We took care of a few tasks downtown and had some free time, so we made our way up the hill at the top of Broad Street to the STAR Radio Headquarters. STAR Radio  (starradio.org/lr) is a GREAT community radio station broadcast in Liberia and available over the Internet. I think it’s the only Liberian station broadcasting over the Internet. The team at STAR Radio produces a number of great segments that air every week, often engaging youth alongside government ministers, and discussing issues like women’s rights, youth problems, etc. Community radio in Liberia is really the main media that gets out to rural areas of the country that don’t really do newspapers. Every household seems to have a radio monitor, and it’s often on community radio–STAR Radio, UNMIL Radio, Radio Veritas…

Kula also works at Population Services International (we decided her nickname today would be Little Ellen, since she’s such a dynamic young woman, we wouldn’t be surprised if she one day becomes president, like current leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf). She and a few other correspondents host a radio show on UNMIL radio that focuses on HIV and teen pregnancy prevention and engages panels of youth each week. We know from the statistics that while females are well represented in elementary school, high school graduation rates are terribly low, and teen pregnancy–along with financial constraints and other issues–are one of the most pressing issues.

After the tour of the radio station–for which Sean and Eddie were lucky enough to do a quick impromptu interview with a correspondent–we headed back to P.A.’s for a Coca Cola. We did a move this evening to Eddie’s niece’s apartment, off of Tubman Avenue–Vivian, not Kula, another daughter of Ciatta, Eddie’s siser and another UCA teacher. We’re having a comfortable night here, with a lot ahead in our last few days. Bedtime in Monrovia.

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Journey to Grand Cape Mount

Phew!  It’s been a long and exhausting weekend.  We woke up bright and early on Saturday morning, as we were told that a car would be picking us up at 6:30 am to commence the journey to Messima, a village very near the Sierra Leone border.  We’d fallen for this “be ready early, the car will be on time” business many times before…only to have the car arrive a good hour or two later than expected.  But silly old us really believed it this time! …We should have known.  We sat waiting, frustrated, wanting to be on time to MEssima, as the ground breaking program was supposed to begin at 10 AM.  It must have been fate that we had to wait, though, because we experienced a true laugh outloud moment that we shall call “The Pepe Parade.”  We were in the living room waiting for the car, when all of a sudden we heard kids shouting and banging on buckets in a parade like manner.  We walked outside, thinking there must be some celebration walking by.  There was one girl in the middle, dressed in banana leaves, a headdress, and mud covering her face.  We clapped, laughed, and took pictures.  Then we asked Mike, our host’s nephew, why the parade was taking place.  He said it was because….she wet the bed.  Then we found out what they were shouting was, “Chicken go peepee!  Dog go peepee!” over and over again.  It was unexpectedly hilarious, though we couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor little bed wetter.  Supposedly this is very common in Liberia because even Eddie knew why the parade was taking place.

 

The ride to Messima was beautiful, heading through the lush Liberian countryside right outside Monrovia. Messima is in Grand Cape Mount County, which borders Sierra Leone. When we finally arrived, we jumped right into the festivities…let’s see, those involed….

A parade from the village to the school site with lots of dancing and singing, remarks from town officials, FUEL Youth team members, singing and dancing from the people of Messima, and the presentation of 2 white chickes to Eddie and Sean. The chickens are a sign of appreciation and a tradition uniqe to the Vai people. The chickens then joined us for the next 24 hours, basically becomming part of our family in the car with us. Edward and his wife Bendu will be preparing them this week. We also broke ground on the Messima school and the whole project just became a lot more real. Last year, a high-powered business man/retired army general worked through Eddie to get in touch with the people of Messima and promised them a school. The school site has already been named in his honor. But he fell off the radar. So now we step in, so we really need to show the people of Messima some progress in this next year. THey’ve already started some of the brick-making on site, and will continue to do so. We will be raising some more money to keep the brick making process going, and other funds to support other school infrastrucutre, including a water system for the school, educational materials, etc. We also will be thinking about how we can work with the government and others to recruit qualified teachers to the school and work on professional development with the existing teachers, whom we were honored to meet at the festivities.

Because we were so late (due to circumstances unforseen by us), we had to rush out of the program with lots of great footage, pictures, and relationnships established. We got shots of Sean with the shovel and Ali with the local boys football team. We walked a 1/2 mile through the forest to get to the river that leads to Robertsport, the county capital that sits on the ocean, where the river drains into Lake Piso. We enjoyed a boat ride with friends, and picked up some passengers delivering goods along the way. When we got into Lake Piso, we could see Gahaian and Sirrea Leonian fishing boats at work. Liberians are only equipped with canoe outrigs for fishing, and only neighboring countries come in with larger skiffs for fishing. Lake Piso is gorgeous, and on the beach by where the Lake drains into the ocean, President Johnson-Sirelaf was recently given a vacation home from the people of Cape Mount.

We were accompanied by a recent high-school graduate, Vinnie (first name spelling definitely not right) Fahnbulleh, who worked with the FUEL Youth tutors that we sponsored this past year. Mr. Fahnbulleh was one of 7 students from the Episcopal High School students in Robertsport to pass his high school exit exam–the first students to do this for almost 20 years. He plans to study agriculture at the University of Liberia next year, hopefully on scholarship.

We basically had no plans in Robertsport…we thought we did…but some miscommunication left us there scratching our heads. But that was OK, as there was much to see and experience. Among other things, we strolled the beach with the FUEL Youth USA gang, Eddie’s neice Kula and our local tourguide (Mr. Fahbulleh), to take in the scene. It’s a mountainous area, hence the name “Cape Mount”. With dusk appraoching, and bellies hungering, we made our way back towards the center of this small city. There is not much in the way of facilities or modern infrastrucutre here, but we found some accomodations in the form of a few matresses in an empty house. Kula procured some eggs and other goods, and we enjoyed a hot meal with fresh fish from Lake Piso in a small restaurant hut. The fish is prepared with palm oil, pepper, and potato and cassava greens…delicious, for sure. We settled back in to the house by candlelight and called it a night.

Up early, we wanted to get back to Monrovia, as our dirver Salif had been away from his family overnight unexpectedly. So we packed in the SUV with our chickens and had a sleepy drive back, catching the sunrise along the way. Since it is Sunday today, we’ve had a low key day with a lot of preparing for this week’s activities, which include some time spent at United Christian Academy, working with the Cape Mount Students University Association, meeting with Peace Corps program officers (hopefully!) and more.

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Happy New Year! We no die.

Greetings friends. We’ve just had another two days of action filled adventure in and around Monrovia. Early in the morning on Wednesday, January 31, we had the opportunity to stretch our legs a visit a bit of Monrovia. We started by heading to Mamba point, which is section of Monrovia, located on a hill, that juts out over the Atlantic Ocean. After our driver and guide – Rolland Perry – talked to some guards at the bottom of the hill, we were allowed to proceed to see Ducor Palace, which was once a five star intercontinental hotel. Now, after mmm about two decades of war, the hotel is only the skeleton of what it once was. Luckily the guards in front of the hotel itself were kind enough to give us a full on tour of the space, allowing us to walk to the roof, where we were able to take in beautiful views of Monrovia. As all the native Liberians, who accompanied us explained, in 2 years time, Ducor Palace will be restored to it’s 5 star rating. Apparently some Libyan investors have stepped in and leased the hotel and surronding property from the Liberian government. The Libyans will then make all the necessary renovations and manage the hotel until some unknown point in the future.

Now to New Years Eve. Even thye Lonley Planet guide will tell you that New years is a big, religious holiday in Liberia. And it did not disappoint. We went to UCA to hear Eddie preach at the church held in the schol’s auditorium. It was a Pentecostal mass, which meant some people got the holy spirit in them and went a little crazy. Sister Alison was asked to do a solo, which she wowed us all with…highly enteraining, and she really stepped up to the plate. At 12 we headed out into the night for a crazy dance party in the school yard, where we got down as everyone chanted in Vai…Happy New Years, we no die!!!…..Vai is Eddie’s native language…one of 12 here in Liberia. It was a pretty amazing New YEar’s celebration. Christine was in full form, really breaking it down with the LIberian women.

We got home late that night, only to wake up early the next morning to prepare for our New Year’s party for the students of UCA.  We were super excited for this party, as were the kids.  After the car arrived an hour or so late for us (Oh Africa time) we arrived at Swaggart Island, and of course quickly had a parade of children following the “white people in the car!”  We had to keep them out of the auditorium so we could decorate the area with streamers, balloons, etc.  We were trying our best to get a generator to get electricity to get our awesome playlist on sean’s ipod going.  Finally we got one, but unfortunately the speakers weren’t loud enough and the kids weren’t able to enjoy James Brown’s “I Feel Good.”  Oh well- maybe next time.  Anywho, the kids filed in and took their seats.  We then started handing out bags and bags and bags of popcorn.  After awhile, the kids started coming back for more- pretending that they hadn’t gotten any yet.  Officer Katie took charge though, frisking the children while looking for hidden bags in clothing, haha. 

  After the popcorn, we all headed outside for a Limbo tournament!  Let me tell you- it was quite the sight to see.  These kids could dip it low!  It was then time to whip out Bill the Burro, our beloved pinata that came with us all the way from target in columbia heights.  It actually only took 3 tries for the kids to break him open, and soon candy was flying everywhere.  Eddie’s sister, Ciatta, used her handbag to try to shoo the kids away while I (Ali) went to go look for the rest of our candy.  I looked to Eddie for advice on how to hand out the candy to the kids, and I took his advice of just throwing it out in handfuls for the kids to pick up.  Needless to say, mass chaos ensued.  Katie, Sean, and Christine immediately went on child control- scooping up small children who’d fallen in the sand amidst the chaos.  This didn’t keep me from taking my job of candy throwing seriously though.  There was candy to be given out!  We have this unbelievably hilarious picture that perfeclty depicts this situation- my hand high in the air..a joyous look on my face..candy flying through the air, all while christine is on all fours in the sand scooping up children.  Yes, it was priceless.

After the fun-filled and ultra-sweaty party with the children at UCA, there was only one thing we really wanted to do (other than check into an air-conditioned hotel room and order up some cosmopolitans):  jump into the ocean. So thats exactly what we did. We asked our awesome driver Salif to take us to the nearest beach, and we ran with our clothes on straight into the ocean.  The salty warm water felt amazing!  At one point, Alison found that her skirt pockets were full of sand, so Christine decided to help out by empyting her pockets. Unfortunately the waves were strong and Christine ended up grabbing Alison by her underpants, pulling her under multiple times, which resulted in  very sandy underpants.  The futbol team that was having practice got a kick out of our clothed swimming session, and we, in turn, got a kick out of the Europeans from the UN who strutted by in their teeny tiny speedos.  We made sure to get a not-so-inconspicuous photo of the speedos.

Today, we made sure to stop by the Monrovia Rotary Club gathering at La Pointe restaurant in Mamba Pointe (the comfort zone for white people – where the US embassy, UN and nice hotels are). It was a great meeting, and they were generous in the time they offered us to speak and take questions. We were surprised that some of the members didn’t really seem to be aware of the lack of educational facilities outside of Monrovia, but they insisted that they would be eager to  partner with the Peoria Rotary Club (of which me and Alison’s father is a part) to help in our effort.

We are heading to Messima village first thing in the morning where we will dedicate the Messima school. After the dedication, we will head to Robertsport via a 2 hour boat ride and spend the night in Robertsport. We plan to meet with some folks there and return to Monrovia on Sunday afternoon.

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Day 2…going strong!

After our adventures at the internet cafe in Monrovia yesterday afternoon, we packed in the car and headed to Swaggart Island, where UCA is located. Even though school wasn’t in session, it didn’t take long for the word to spread that we arrived and soon enough, the kids started flying in! We got a good session of the hokey pokey going, along with a couple rounds of duck duck goose. I was amazed and excited that the kids remembered the songs and games I’d taught them over a year ago…as soon as we arrived, there were requests for “Skinamarinky dinky dink,” haha. After enjoying time with the kids, we sat down in a classroom with members of Fuel Youth Liberia and others for formal introductions and to set the agenda for the rest of the trip. Eddie set the tone for the meeting, as always, reminding everyone that everything we’re doing is for the purpose of the children of Liberia. Following our meeting, a reporter from STAR radio whipped out his tape recorder and began interviewing the four of us for his radio program. It was amazing to be able to discuss our visions of FUEL youth, why we’re in Liberia, and what we hope to accomplish in the future. We’re not quite sure when the program is going to air, but we do know that people in the US can access it via STAR radio’s website.

Following another dinner at P.A.’s rib house, the girls – Christine, Katie, and Ali – relocated to stay with Sean, who had more spacious and cooler accommodations. Christine promptly passed out, while Katie, Sean and Ali waited for the generator to kick in so that they could have light. While sitting in the living room and the dark, we notice a crowd gathering outside the window, which soon spread to a bigger crowd that wrapped the side of the house to the front door. The children were amazed by the presence of 4 white visitors in their neighborhood – they didn’t know how to handle it. When Katie and Ali approached them to say “hello,” the children erupted into a fit of awkward giggles. Oh Libera!

Today we have a little more down time, so we are going to spend it by planning our surprise New Year’s party for the children at UCA and walking the city.

More adventures to follow.

-The FUEL Youth Team

P.S. One of our favorite activities is spotting awesome t-shirts, here are the top two so far:

1) Worn by an 8 year old boy: “It’s one thing to be a father, it’s another thing to be a dad”

2) “One by one, the penguins are stealing my sanity”

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FUEL Youth has landed…

Greetings, everyone!  Alison, Sean, Christine and I (Katie) landed in Liberia yesterday at 8pm and with most of our luggage! Eddie arrived a day earlier.  Our connections in Munich and Brussels were smooth (Sean connected in Amsterdam and we all met up in Brussels), and I was surprised to see that there were more lingerie stores in the Munich airport than there were newstands.  We are having a great time – everyone has been incredibly welcoming (especially the little girl living next door who has latched onto Christine pretty tightly).  Christine, Ali and I are staying in Sinkor – a community right outside of Monrovia, we “slept” (maybe an hour?) “comfortably” (in the same bed, in an 88 degree heat-box) and are feeling “great” (sleep deprived and incredibly sweaty). No, but seriously, we are so happy to be on the ground here in Monrovia and are enjoying hanging out with the FUEL Youth team here.  This morning we had breakfast at P.A.’s Ribs – a restaurant walking distance from where we’re staying and with flush toilets! Yay! Christine and Sean had the “Liberian Breakfast Platter” with fish, cassava, and biscuits, while Alison and I feasted on plantains and a biscuit – Nescafe’s all around! Later today we will be headed to UCA for a quick visit. We’re not exactly sure what lies ahead of us the next few days, but we trust that we will be well taken care of.  We look forward to meeting with the Cape Mountanian Student Association tomorrow, getting the rest of our luggage on Wednesday (fingers crossed), our children’s New Year’s party on Thursday, and Messima on Saturday! We will try to post a couple more times during our trip, so stay tuned! 

Best,

FUEL Youth team (minus Mike)

PS: Mike – we miss you!!

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Celebrating New Years in Liberia

On December 28th, two short months from now, 5 of the 6 FUEL Youth team members (we’ll miss you, Mike!) will embark on our (almost) full-team visit to Liberia. We couldn’t be more excited, as this 11-day trip will help us to solidify our relationship with the Liberian communities with whom we hope to build strong, long-lasting partnerships as we move forward.  We have a pretty ambitious and hefty agenda while we’re there. Here are a few of the highlights:

We will be visiting the United Christian Academy (UCA), the first school fully supported by FUEL Youth.

At UCA we will be ringing in the New Year with children and their families in the Gardnersville community (tons of Liberian kids + FUEL Youth team + iPod shuffle + silly NYE hats and kazoos = Best NYE Ever!)

Meet with Liberian Female Lawyers Association to explore the possibility of a mentor program to encourage young girls to continue their education and to pursue their dream post-school (background info on disturbing trends)

Meet with student associations from the University of Liberia and other universities in Monrovia to build support for our tutoring programs that engage university students in their local communities and is the basis for a positive community development cycle

Visit the second FUEL Youth school-building project in Grand Cape Mount County, which is underway in the rural village of Messima

Host and experience the final match of a FUEL-Youth sponsored youth soccer tournament to promote unity and community development

Present Medals of Outstanding Achievement and Scholarship Awards to the high school students who have passed their West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) and who will continue onto University with the support of FUEL Youth

Distribute dozens of life vests donated from a company in New England to rural villages that are isolated by bodies of water during Liberia’s intense rainy season

Meet and build relationships with local representatives and with interested community members to assess the needs of each community and discuss how we can work with the communities to provide educational opportunities

Attract local media attention to the needs—educational and otherwise—of rural Liberian communities

We will do our best to document this trip via photo and video so that we can share as much of it as possible with all of you upon our return! And we humbly accept any support you can offer FUEL Youth to support our programs.

And for all our friends and supporters in the Washington, DC area, we are planning our holiday fundraiser (Libations for Liberia II) complete with DJ Moose spinning records. Please look out for more details.

As always, thanks so much for your interest in and support for our work!

The FUEL Youth Team

Eddie, Sean, Alison, Mike, Christine and Katie

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An update and congrats!!

Wow! It has been an inexcusably long time since our last post, so for that please forgive us.  We are planning to ramp up our blogging efforts over the next few months as the FUEL Youth team prepares for its second official trip to Liberia (more on this later). We write today to update you all on some of our recent activities.

In Liberia, high school students must take and pass an exam in order to graduate and be eligible to continue onto university. This exam is called the West African Senior School Certificate Exam (WASSCE), and it is required of several West African countries like Liberia.  We found out that, in the past ten years, NOT ONE student in Grand Cape Mount County has passed this exam. Startled by this finding and by its implications, we decided to jumpstart a tutoring program for high school students in Grand Cape Mount County to lead up to the WASSCE in May of 2008. In the months prior to the exam, an extraordinary group of University students, who hail from Grand Cape Mount County and who were eager to  assist  their community agreed to help prepare students for this exam. FUEL Youth provided these amazing tutors with meals and transportation to and from the county from the capital, Monrovia, on the weekends, and in May, our high school students sat for the exam.

In August of 2008, we received the results from the exam: 7 students passed! Though this may not seem like an impressive number, we were absolutely thrilled!  These 7 students now have the opportunity to continue onto University, and they will undoubtedly inspire their younger siblings and fellow students to work towards that goal as well.  We are also happy to report that 21 additional students scored high enough to retake the exam this coming December, so we have provided each eligible student with the funding to register for the December exam.  We hope to step up our tutoring program for these students this fall, so that each of them can graduate and set their sights on University.

We would like to recognize the 7 students for their outstanding achievement. They are:

1. Miatta Paasseh
2. Eli Hajah Gray
3. O. Haliry Dassen
4. Seiku A Fahnbulleh
5. Samuel Poe
6. Varney G.Fahnbulleh
7. Hilary B.Seitua

For the 7 students who passed the May exam, we are setting up a FUEL Youth Scholarship program so that no financial barrier prevents them from continuing their education. A requirement of the scholarship will be that, upon settling into their University curriculum, they will volunteer a set number of hours/weekends per semester tutoring high school students in Grand Cape Mount County. It is this type of cycle of positive energy and encouragement that we hope will counteract the vicious cycle of poverty that bears down on many rural communities in Liberia. Too many children drop out of school, because their family cannot afford the tuition.  It is a primary goal of FUEL Youth to provide these children with the scholarships and opportunities needed to propel them through University and into careers that will allow them to later give back to their communities. We hope you can help us achieve that goal.

Please check back often as we prepare for our trip to Liberia in December to celebrate the New Year holiday with students and families at our school in in Gardenersville, Monrovia (and so much more!!)

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