Mario's Reflection

Mario volunteered on Liberia Mission during the summer of 2017. Here is a reflection he wrote upon his return:

"I was just looking over my diary entries from my trip to Liberia Mission last year and some words I wrote tend to repeat. Words like "peace," "love," and "God." This is why I volunteer there. This is why I return.

I'm from a very dry climate (New Mexico), so the un-Godly humidity of Liberia is a shock to me. Seeing big bugs and pests I'm not used to forces me way out of the comfort zone. But it's still worth it because there's something at Liberia Mission I can't get back home: unconditional love.

The kids there are so loving and so appreciative. I feel closer to God there. Prayer seems more real to me.

And there's also a randomness to it that's a blast. On any given morning, I might wake up and hear kids practicing religious songs. Or a rooster crowing. Or a donkey peeking it's head in through my window. This is how the day starts.

Throughout the day, seeing the kids smiling, joining in on their games, playing checkers with them, helping them with homework, or just being a friend all feel worthwhile. Maybe I'm Jesus to them and they're Jesus to me too.

"Whatever you do for the least of my people, that you do unto me." I feel I get to live this passage from the Bible at Liberia Mission.

This is why I go and this is why I return."

Fr. John Carville's Reflection

Fr. John Carville Visited Liberia Mission in May 2017. Following his time there, he wrote the following letter for The Catholic Commentator, the newspaper for the Diocese of Baton Rouge:

           President Trump has said that he was elected to care for the needs of Pittsburg, not Paris.  America should come first, before we do anything for the planet or the advantage of poor countries.  That seems to make sense to many Americans today.  At the end of May I was visiting former classmates in Detroit.  They took me on a tour of the city which I had not seen in 40 years.  Downtown Detroit is still intact, a little worn, but still looking like the prosperous city I remember as the hub of America's auto industry.  However, today one doesn't have to drive far from that center to see some of the worst urban blight in our 50 states.  Whole blocks are abandoned, boarded up.  They look like the lower ninth ward in New Orleans after Katrina.  I thought to myself, “So this explains the vote in the presidential race.”  

            Where are those people now?  They have moved, found new work—probably not as lucrative, without as good benefits as before—but they are finally back to work according to labor statistics of last month.

            America is resilient, America is wealthy.  We have our ups and downs, but we can come back from financial recessions and natural disasters.  This is not so in many other countries of our world.  Before flying to Detroit I made an 11 day trip to Liberia, Africa, at the beginning of May to visit and work for a Catholic mission there.  It was my third annual trip.  Each yearly visit has taught me a little more about what we can do to help people who are caught in a terrible cycle of poverty. 

            Joe Sehnert, the chairman of the board of directors of Franciscan Works (Archdiocese of Chicago), the non-profit mission company that finances Liberia Mission (Archdiocese of Monrovia), explains the cycle of poverty in this way:  A child grows up in poverty lacking education and job skills; when he comes of age, he cannot find work; he begins his own family, and his children grow up in poverty lacking education and job skills; and the cycle continues.   

            One of the mission's main objectives is not only to feed and house the mission's fifty orphans but also to give them and 375 more children in the poverty area around it a solid education.  This is the only way to break their cycle of poverty.   Joe, who ran the mission in Liberia for four years during the Ebola outbreak, published the following statistics in the Franciscan Works 2017 Spring Newsletter: “Over 80% of its (Liberia) population lives on less than $1.25 (USD) a day.  65% of primary school age children have no schooling.  Only 20% of students enrolled in Grade 1 stay enrolled until Grade 12.” 

            Liberia Mission began in 2003 as an emergency response to save orphans left by a 14 year civil war.  There are still orphans to be saved, now from the Ebola epidemic that took so many lives three years ago.  Children who lost their parents were often abandoned by their own villages out of fear that they could spread the plague.  The Archdiocese of Monrovia asked the mission to take in 25 of these orphans.  The Ruckstuhl Foundation, founded by Dick Ruckstuhl, a parishioner of St. Thomas Moore Parish here in Baton Rouge until his death four years ago, donated $10,000 to help these orphans.  Three years ago the foundation gave another $10,000 to replace a burnt out generator, the mission's only source of electricity.  (I was there when the generator blew. That's how it is in mission countries.  If you want water, you dig your own well; food, you raise your own pigs, chickens, sheep, crops, etc.; electricity, you install your own generator.)  Last year the foundation gave $30,000 to replace rusted, leaking roofs with new sheet metal on the K-9 school, boys dormitory, and girls dorm.  This year we hope to replace a totally dead truck, one of the only two vehicles the mission owns.  The other is a rickety van used to retrieve visitors from the airport and high school students from their school, Booker Washington Institute, about 10 miles down the road. 

            No one who sponsors a child and visits him or her at the mission can not become attached to these wonderful children.  The director of the mission when I first visited three years ago was a young and amazingly capable Irish girl from Dublin, Mary Anne O'Driscoll.  She introduced me to the three youngest orphans, Ben, age six then, his younger sister, Ruth, whom Mary Anne dubbed “Pokey,”and her new best friend Willemena, both five.  Although I was already sponsoring a high school student, Aaron Karmbo, and, after his graduation, now am sponsoring a fifth grader, Emmanuel Tokpah, I still am followed around by the three little ones.  This was especially so last year after Mary Anne was killed in a tragic auto accident.  I carry in my cell phone a picture of her and the little ones, also one of Ben with a school bag on his shoulders half his size, reading a sign above the dining hall door with the prayer,”Thank God, Ebola Gone!”  

            Liberia Mission is now in the charge of an American family—Greg and Kristen Caudle, who brought their four children with them: Eliana, eight, Liam, six, Caleb, four, and Lucas, two.  Eliana is easy to spot every morning at the St. Anthony School assembly outside in front of the Liberian flag where the students line up by grade to pray and pledge allegiance.  She lines up with the third grade and is the only child with blond hair and fair skin.  Liam is being home-schooled via computer and momma until he is prepared to assimilate into the school.  Caleb is enjoying his last year of freedom before kindergarten and Lucas is happily learning to walk and talk.  Greg is an ideal fit at the mission since he comes there from serving as a middle-school principal in Colorado.

            It takes a yearly budget of 420,000 USD to run the mission and its school, to support 40 students in the vocational high school, and 10 of the eldest who are now at the University of Liberia.  About $100,000 comes from tuition sponsorships.  The rest must come from donations, grants and mission appeals in the United States.  Liberia Mission lives a precarious existence financially.  What it really needs is 100 generous persons to each give it $3,000 a year. 

            St. Francis of Assisi counseled his followers, “Start by doing what's necessary, then do what's possible, and suddenly you're doing the impossible.”  When President Trump met with another Francis in May, I hope the Pope repeated to him what he has said to others like you and me, “To live charitably means not looking out for our own interests, but carrying the burdens of the weakest and poorest among us.”      

Brittany Skolnick's Reflection

It probably won't come as a surprise when I say that living and working with over 50 children can be challenging. Each child is wholly unique, and yet in many ways, children are children no matter what country you are in. They can have attitudes, they get upset over how they performed in their sports matches or in school, and they argue with their siblings. All 50+ of them. Like a parent, I am often frustrated with them, but every day I am reminded of why I chose this type of work. I am reminded when I see their faces light up when they get a letter from their sponsor or when I watch the celebrations they have when they beat other teams in a football or kickball match. I'm reminded when we celebrate the most improved students or one of them comes running to tell me they did well on quiz they were nervous about. I'm especially reminded when I listen to the choir during Mass, seeing the light of God shining through each of them as they sing at the very top of their lungs.

It's not just the kids that make it worth it, but the staff and community that surrounds Liberia Mission too. In one of my first few weeks here, Rebecca, the head cook, brought me to her house that is a stone's throw across the street from the mission. I was introduced to her extended family and neighbors who received me as if we had known each other for years. Her sister then pointed to the patch of land growing potato greens, handed me a knife, and put me straight to work. In the pouring rain, we all got a very good laugh about how ridiculous I probably looked, drenched, covered in dirt, and doing my best attempt to keep all my fingers intact. For Liberians, it doesn't take much for a bond to be formed, and every time I see Rebecca or her family, I'm received as warmly as any blood relation would be. I've also since been given the name of "Liberian Brittany" by Rebecca, which I take as a sign I'm slightly more competent than I was when I first arrived.  

As I write this, I have just passed the 6 month mark of being in Liberia. I've thought a lot about what I would go back and tell myself, if I could speak to myself before I left America. I would warn myself that there is a seemingly endless supply of ants and spiders the size of my hand, that I would sweat more than I ever thought possible, and that silence would be all but eliminated from my life. I would tell myself that there would be days that I would be frustrated to the point of tears or so tired that I am sure I cannot get out of bed. Most importantly, I would tell myself that though this work is hard, these kids and the people of Liberia are 100 percent worth every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears.