Traveling to Sierra Leone quite literally brought my work to life. I’ve been here at the Healey International Relief Foundation for eight months and up until a couple of weeks ago, spending Monday through Friday in an office in Cherry Hill, New Jersey—about 4,300 miles away from Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown. This week-long venture to Salone would leave me more connected to my work than ever.
On November 10th, 2019, I landed in Lunghi International Airport alongside my boss, Ben, his wife Flor, my coworker Vicki, and a representative from our partners at MAP, Jeff. As we stepped out of the airport, luggage rolling beside us, a familiar face greeted us, Ishmeal Alfred Charles himself. To me, this was wild. I had communicated with Charles via emails, texts, and video conference calls but never became acquainted face-to-face. My first night in-country was capped off with a Star beer and dinner alongside most of the U.S. and Sierra Leonian Healey International staff.
Our first two days, packed with visits to medical facilities, the ICC, and our warehouse, was very surreal. I’ve been creating fundraisers to support Christ the King Hospital, Sullivan Clinic, St. Anthony’s Clinic, and others for months, but to drive through the surrounding slums and step into their respective compounds gave me a new understanding of the impact of these facilities. The communities were visibly impoverished. Each visit was miles from the nearest city clinic. We turned off newly paved tarmac roads onto uneven dirt roads, packing anywhere from five to seven of us into a vehicle. We bounced around in the back seat, trying not to elbow each other accidentally. As we neared the compounds, each scene was almost identical—mothers hanging damp clothes on a clothesline, children with ripped shirts and no shoes playing soccer, and others sitting in the shade to trying to escape the humid Sierra Leone heat. I was told, but I couldn’t imagine, that many of these communities were much worse in years past.
Each of the healthcare workers I’d spoken with echoed the same sentiment. The communities surrounding have seen only positive growth since having a clinic or hospital to care for its people. Sister Josephine (another face I had seen on our monthly WhatsApp meetings but did not have the pleasure of meeting in person until my trip) was our eyes and ears on the ground. She regularly visits each of the clinics and hospitals we support, ensuring that our medical supply and medicine donations are at the very least useful. I understood Sister Josephine’s dedication to the success of these facilities immediately. Good health can uplift a community.
Day three was the first day I was able to spend with the dedicated volunteers and staff on the Tzu Chi Foundation team. It was also the first day I got to see Charles in action. I was in awe of how intelligently he articulated himself and always, always put the needs of the Sierra Leonian people first. The most challenging and rewarding day was the following day spent doing distributions in Culvert. In collaboration with the Partnership for Humanity organizations (my team at HealeyIRF, Caritas, Tzu Chi, and Lanyi), we distributed blankets and clothes to victims of the August floodings in Culvert. After about seven hours of baking under the sun, dedicated volunteers finished handing out bags even after the sun had set, lit only by the glow of truck headlights.
I got to spend my final day at St. Mary’s-Fatima ICC in River #2 (yes, there’s a River #1). Sisters Agatha and Bernadette shower all 27 children at the home with love, and you can see it all around the compound. In the food they eat, the discipline they have with school and chores, the optimism they have for the future, and the pure joy they share through dance and laughter. Each of these children had lived lives of hardship before coming to the home, many of them orphaned by Ebola, and yet all of them radiated positivity.
Before St. Mary’s-Fatima ICC, there was a St. Mary’s home for children. Established after the civil war, St. Mary’s was born out of the efforts and compassion of Father Peter. When I had the opportunity to speak with three former residents of St. Mary’s, I was not at all shocked by the love and admiration they each had for Father Peter. That became a common theme throughout the trip. In the small communities I interacted with, Father Peter was a superstar. Those close to him would joke and call him, “Mister Mayor.” For those who have never had the pleasure of meeting him, it’s hard to pin down his boundless empathy, charisma, and uncanny ability to find the humor in almost all situations—not to mention his tastefully cheeky jokes.
As I crossed the bay on a ferry to the airport, I felt overwhelmed with hope about the future of the country. Many of the people I encountered had endured so much adversity, only to overcome it tenfold, driven to give back to their communities. No matter where I went, I felt welcome. Gratitude is the only word that can sum up the feeling of being in Sierra Leone. I thought of the children at the ICC who declared their dream careers to be in service of the people and Ishmael from Culvert, who found the inspiration volunteer with the Partnership for Humanity through the loss of his brother in one of the floods this past August.
The sky turned shades of red and pink as my plane ascended into Sierra Leonian skies. Less than an hour later, I was watching the moon rise over Liberia. Already, I felt a longing to return to Salone.