School supplies sent from Stockton Springs to Africa stuck in limbo

Mark Robinson
Courtesy photo
Mark Robinson
Posted Aug. 18, 2011, at 7:53 p.m.

STOCKTON SPRINGS, Maine — A box of school supplies that students at Stockton Springs Elementary School collected to aid children at a devastated school in Africa is languishing in a bureaucratic limbo with no clear way out.

The box, all 65 pounds of it, had been filled earlier this summer with pencils, paper, coloring books and hope by Stockton Springs Elementary School pupils who had been moved to action by a presentation from the director of the Global-Ghana Youth Network school in Accra, Ghana.

While visiting Maine, Mollishmael Gabah told the Stockton Spring students that the school for impoverished children in Ghana had been destroyed by a January flash flood followed by a mud slide.

That didn’t sit right with the students here, according to guidance counselor Julie Page.

“They felt really bad that [these] kids didn’t have a school anymore. They said, we need to help in some way,” she said last week.

Staff and students at the school decided to collect supplies, equipment and other items that would help make the African children’s lives easier, such as flip-flops so they wouldn’t have to walk barefoot anymore, Page wrote in an email to RSU 20 Superintendent Bruce Mailloux.

After one month of collecting, the students and their families had gathered 17 boxes of items for the Global-Ghana Youth Network school.

Gabah was “very touched” by the generosity of the Maine schoolchildren, Page said. He was able to return to Ghana with two duffel bags stuffed full. But the remaining donations, which filled one 65-pound box, still needed to be mailed to the school. Because Gabah warned the Mainers that the postal service in Ghana was corrupt, they decided to mail the box through FedEx.

After the school raised more than $500 in a raffle this spring to pay for postage, Page managed to wrestle the heavy box into the door of the FedEx shipping center in Bangor three weeks ago.

That’s where retired FedEx pilot Mark Robinson, who moved to Stonington a few years ago, came in to save the day.

He was just finishing his own transaction when he noticed the woman struggling with the large box, and helped her get it to the counter. He was still there when the clerk totaled the price of shipping all those pounds of school supplies to Ghana: $1,380. He registered Page’s distress.

“She said, ‘Our kids saved for this, to send to schoolchildren in Ghana,’” he recalled Wednesday.

Without knowing Page, or the story of the flooded school, Robinson made the snap decision to help her out. He told the clerk to put the package on his account, which is heavily discounted because the 66-year-old worked for 30 years flying high-priority small packages all over the world for the shipping company.

According to Page, Robinson’s good deed made her day. If he hadn’t stepped up to the counter, she wouldn’t have been able to mail the supplies, she said.

“It was really very generous and heartwarming to think there were still people who do nice things,” she said.

As for the remainder of the shipping costs, which Robinson preferred not to disclose, well, he decided to pay them, too.

“It was within my ability to make a contribution to the school system, and I felt like I should do that,” he said. “I had the capability to help somebody. It did these kids a world of good, and it made me feel good. It’s one of those times where I personally had the opportunity to help somebody, and it made me feel like I’m part of the community.”

Thanks to Robinson, and FedEx, the school supplies eventually made it to Accra, but that’s where the story’s happy ending takes a frustrating turn.

Before releasing the package to Gabah, Ghanaian customs officials decided they wanted to charge more than $250 in duty fees for the package.

“It’s extortion. It’s ridiculous,” said RSU 20 Assistant Superintendent John MacDonald.

He said he has written to the U.S. Embassy in Ghana asking for help in releasing the package, but has yet to receive a reply.

“We’re kind of at a loss. It’s too bad,” MacDonald said. “You feel a little bit helpless. You don’t know who to contact.”

He said that what makes it worse is knowing that the Maine children just wanted to do something nice for their African counterparts.

“It’s books and pencils and pens and paper and this kind of thing for the school kids,” he said, expressing his dissatisfaction with the Ghanaian officials. “It’s just a really sad state of affairs when they’ve got to do that to their own kids.”

Robinson said he is hoping the package gets into the right hands, and soon.

“This is about kids, and education,” he said. “It is not about diamonds and oil. It’s a humanitarian thing.”

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