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Making A Difference

The tiny one-room schoolhouse in a West African village is a world away from Barnstable Intermediate School on Route 28. The connection between the two schools, however, is imprinted with the initials "BIS" on the wall of the cinder block building in Ben Town, Grand Bassa County, Liberia.

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Barnstable Students Make An Impact On Children In Liberia

September 15, 2014 - By Patrick Cassidy - Cape Cod Times

Ben Town School Children
Children in Ben Town in Bassa County, Liberia, hold up squares with photographs of students from Barnstable Intermediate School who helped raise money to build a new school in the African village. Courtesy of Mission to Liberia

The tiny one-room schoolhouse in a West African village is a world away from Barnstable Intermediate School on Route 28.

The connection between the two schools, however, is imprinted with the initials "BIS" on the wall of the cinder block building in Ben Town, Grand Bassa County, Liberia.

Links between the two schools began forming in 2012 when Barnstable sixth-grade world geography teacher Susan White and other teachers from the intermediate school attended a workshop at Bridgewater State University where Michael Cambra of the nonprofit group Mission to Liberia spoke.

"I went up to him after the presentation, I think," White said. "That got the ball rolling."

The charity work of Mission to Liberia, which Cambra and his wife founded in 2005 when a man came to the shipping company they owned looking to send materials back to his home country, seemed a perfect fit for the sixth-grade geography curriculum, including a unit on Africa and micro-enterprise, White and social studies curriculum coordinator Virginia Turner thought.

When Cambra visited Ben Town the village's young people pleaded for help building a new school, he said. His group typically collects clothing, toiletries and other supplies to ship there.

From the initial conversation with White the idea was born that the Barnstable students could help raise money to build a floor for an existing wooden building that didn't even have solid walls. But once Cambra found out the students had raised $3,300 using jars donated by a local restaurant and doing other entrepreneurial activities he realized their efforts could pay for an entire school that would stand up better to the elements, including termites.

Mission to Liberia established an economic development council made up of village elders in Ben Town and signed a memorandum of understanding with them to build the school, Cambra said.

"We were to provide all materials and food for workers," he said. "They would provide all the workers free of charge."

First a well was installed and then the 20-foot-by-60-foot school building, which includes a separate first aid station, was built, Cambra said. Ben Town was so isolated it had never had a concrete building, so an engineer had to be specially brought in for the job, he said.

But the Barnstable Intermediate students weren't finished. In the spring another class of sixth-graders raised $2,500 for an eight-person latrine outside the school, Cambra said.

Although the work is completed, the school remains closed for at least the next six months, as ordered by the Liberian government in the face of the Ebola outbreak that is spreading like wildfire across Africa.

Ben Town has been largely spared, but other people affiliated with Mission to Liberia in other parts of the country have had to deal directly with the disease's effects, Cambra said.

The dire situation is evident in a letter to Cambra from one of the people Mission to Liberia works with in the country.

"Things are getting bad here, Uncle Mike," David Fehkpolo wrote. "No hospitals are opened here since one and half months and people are dying on daily basis not only from Ebola but from other diseases that can be cured if taken to hospital. It's really scary! The death rate is on the increase and I so am afraid right now. Prices of things are also rising in Liberia due to state of emergency. The poor will start dying from starvation if nothing is done to tackle this too."

The price of rice, for example, was $35 for 50 pounds in 2012 and has now risen to $50 and it has become much harder to move around the country, Cambra said. Another Mission to Liberia coordinator is now in charge of all of the country's general pharmacists, he said.

"He's charged with Ebola education in all of the counties," Cambra said.

So, instead of planning more projects, Cambra is sending money to pay for rice, two tons in the past two weeks, he said.

"We've halted our normal programs," he said, adding that he and the Barnstable Intermediate teachers will reassess local students doing another project in the spring. "I certainly don't want schools to get in the business of buying rice."

To be certified by Liberian education officials and get teachers and supplies the school needs a cafeteria, Cambra said, adding that Barnstable students also might be able to help purchase a generator for the building.

"I like it to come from them," Cambra said about the Liberians. "Mission to Liberia started out thinking we knew what Liberians needed. We found out we don't know a thing about what they need."

Meanwhile, the connection to Liberia continues to allow the Barnstable teachers to "bring life to the geography curriculum," including lessons about world service, Turner said.

For students, the connection was made real by photographs showing Liberian children holding small squares with their photographs on them, White said.

"We all sat in assembly, our whole school, and we all saw the kids' faces," said George Cole, 13. "Everybody was so happy we could change things for people thousands of miles away."

George, who is now in the eighth grade at Barnstable High School, said he had an idea where Liberia was because of the civil war that ended there in 2003, but said it was great to learn more about the world. The young hockey player, who wants to be a neurologist someday, said he has been following the toll of the Ebola outbreak and keeping up with Mission to Liberia's efforts to help.

"They're doing much more than just building a school," he said.

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