A dear friend of FUEL Youth, Toni Schneider, was able to visit the UCA campus in the Fall of 2009. Toni hails from the United States but is in Liberia working with the Ministry of Education and the World Food Program on an initiative to develop strong parent teacher associations across Liberia. Read Toni’s story of her visit.
UCA is a FUEL Youth-supported school right outside of Monrovia offering an education to over 340 students from the immediate area where there was once no opportunity for education at all. UCA faces challenges, but Toni’s story tells of a inspiring community ready to lift up and foster a school that works for their children.
My counterpart slowed his pace and removed his shoes. After more than three hours of cramped rides in bush taxis along Somalia Drive from Duala Market to the Steven Tolbert Estates, I’d had enough. I rolled my eyes in exasperation at his “bush baby” behavior, frustrated that he was about to meet a FUEL Youth school principal without any footwear. But my mutterings ceased when my next steps were met with a kur-splash!
Borbor Swaggart Island is, in the truest sense of the word, an island. As community organizer for the Ministry of Education and UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) Parent Teacher Association development program, I had seen the worst of the worst when it comes to rural schools, including children coming to school in without shoes, taking their lessons out of doors, and going home hungry when the principal and head cook improperly managed WFP food rations. But what I had never seen was a community cut off from the rest of the city when the tide comes in. Stretching out in front of us, the only road leading in and out of Swaggart Island was submerged in more than a foot of water for the next hundred feet. I could not believe what I was seeing, but the reality of being cut off from the rest of Monrovia was a stark reality for citizens of the Island. Whenever I think of a Liberian community in need, this mental picture always does the trick.
An important thing to remember is that the Ministry of Education is doing its best to make real progress in the schools since the civil war ended in 2004. They are serious about collaborating with international partners and donor agencies, holding regular partner meetings to ensure that each institution is making a specific, measurable contribution towards President Sirleaf’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. PLAN is building schools, WFP is providing schools with food, Concern International is equipping students and teachers with the skills to care for school gardens. Even with fantastic partnership like these, with a rapid increase in student enrollment and a majority of teachers who lack training and have gone without pay for an entire calendar year, there is a long way to go. Oh, and did I mention that private and community schools are almost entirely excluded from any of these programs?
After successfully navigating the waterway, hopping from sand band to sand bag like rocks in a stream, a group of young children led us to the FUEL UCA school. I could barely believe my eyes when I saw a room full of parents packed into the modern cement school building. I had been running PTA meetings all over Bomi County for months, but the number of parents in attendance more than doubled my previous record. After meeting with the PTA chairlady and our co-director for PTA at the Ministry of Education, we decided to begin the intensive one-day training. We focused on empowering parents to take an active role in the school by teaching them to take ownership of the UCA school and to seek out solutions to day-to-day problems. The rest of the day was spent discussing UCA’s most pressing needs in breakout groups and discussion sessions, led by Ministry of Education staff and community members alike. By the end of the day, parents had not only chosen a school project to undertake, they established a clear plan of action and set follow-up meeting dates to continue the momentum of the workshop.
Not to be outdone by the parents, the teachers and other faculty of UCA participated in a parallel training event. My “sister” Alyssa has developed and implemented teacher trainer programs all over the world, and was happy to create a training program specifically for the UCA staff.
Visiting the UCA campus and working with the dedicated, determined faculty and parents was a chance of a lifetime. In Washington, DC I knew several of FUEL Youth’s founding members, but never in a million years did I believe I’d have the chance to see their work in action. I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I am that FUEL’s approach to rebuilding Liberia begins with reaching some of the poorest of the country’s poor. As an international development professional myself, I’ve seen many NGOs and aid organizations focus on communities that have greater “accessibility” than need. FUEL is reaching out to some of the communities that are largely ignored by the NGO world – and making great strides in the process!
I encourage anyone who is interested in rebuilding Liberia or supporting primary education in West Africa to take note and take action in FUEL YOUTH’s activities. What makes FUEL stand out from other international aid organizations is their grassroots approach to providing quality education to youth in under-served communities in Liberia. Get involved today and start helping an NGO that teaches Liberians the skills to Lift Liberia!
After successfully navigating our way through a series of cramped, sweaty bush taxis rides along Somalia Drive from Duala Market to the Steven Tolbert Estates, I came face to face with a challenge I had never anticipated. Months after having grown accustomed to the challenges of working in Liberia and dealing with the heavy downpours of the rainy season, I was shocked