HAMPDEN, Maine — The village of Weajue in the African Republic of Liberia has limited health care, educational resources or nutritional guidance. Its approximately 3,000 residents don’t even have clean water. About one in five children die from disease before the age of 6.
Sean Higgins, Shaylah Goss and Andrew Deighan admittedly knew very little about the impoverished country a few months ago, but they’ll get an up-close, hands-on education come next spring.
The three youths, all recent graduates of Hampden Academy, are founders of a non-profit group called “Friends of Liberia,” which seeks to provide assistance to the country through volunteer work. The trio from Maine will travel next April to Weajue, an interior village about 100 miles north of the capital, to help build a clean water system, assist teachers and promote good nutrition and sanitation practices.
“I was so surprised to learn about their history and how it ties to our own,” Deighan, a 2008 graduate, said in a recent interview. “I don’t think a lot of people are even aware.”
Liberia, a small English-speaking country on Africa’s west coast, was founded in the 1820s by freed slaves from the United States and historically has modeled its government after the U.S., albeit with less success. More recently, the country has survived a military coup that overturned its government, followed by two civil wars that crippled its population and economic stability.
“I’m learning more and more all the time,” said Goss, who graduated in 2005 and is studying early childhood education at Eastern Maine Community College.
Deighan first heard about Friends of Liberia from Jim Shue, a member of his church whose children had participated in the program. Goss attended the same church and was recruited in part because she recently had participated in a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua. Higgins was the last to sign on.
“I was kicked and dragged into this,” he joked. In truth, Higgins, also a 2005 graduate, current engineering student at the University of Maine and past participant of a program called Engineers Without Borders, was recruited for his own expertise. “Our hope is to develop an infrastructure that allows easy access to clean water. It seems simple, but it’s a huge problem for them.”
The three from Hampden also got to spend some time with William Tubman Jr., son of Liberia’s late president, who attended college with Shue and has worked with him in the past. Tubman, who visited the Bangor Daily News with Higgins, Goss and Deighan, said that while his country has historical ties to the U.S., it hasn’t always benefited from that link.
“I think it would be fair to say that [Liberia] has been forgotten somewhat,” he said. “But what’s great about what these young people are doing is that they are taking the initiative without government. What they are doing will truly be people-to-people work.”
Much of the volunteerism by the Friends of Liberia is similar to the work Peace Corps volunteers do all over the world, Tubman said.
Despite their youth, all three have international experience, although they fully expect Liberia to be unlike anything they have seen.
“My parents gave up worrying about me a long time ago,” Higgins said. “I think they see that I’m still alive and kicking.”
Deighan, the group’s team leader, has been accepted to McGill University in Montreal but is delaying college to participate in the mission to Liberia. Like Higgins, his parents have accepted their son’s fate.
“My mom wants to make sure I have all my shots,” he said.
A fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, at the Hampden-Highlands United Methodist Church fellowship hall at 44 Kennebec Road to benefit the “Friends of Liberia” mission next spring. The event, dubbed an “African Charity Murder Mystery Dinner,” will feature a spaghetti dinner and entertainment and is open to the public. Tickets are $15 for individuals, $25 for couples and $100 for a table of eight. The evening also will feature an auction of authentic African artifacts and other donated items. Anyone who is interested can contact Shaylah Goss at 740-6924 or by e-mail at email@example.com.