People Who Inspire II
Like most 20-year-olds, Leighanne devours s’mores bars, uses hair straightener to tame her curly locks, & shops at Forever 21. But unlike most 20-year-olds, she showers in an outdoor metal shower (in lightning storms on occasion) & sleeps under a mosquito net.
You see, Leighanne’s life motto is "Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it" (Proverbs 3:27) & she’s currently living out her creed in Liberia, West Africa. You are about to experience why Leighanne makes SPEL’s list of People Who Inspire. Here's her story as told to me.
It all started in 2006 when I took my first service trip to the Dominican Republic. As a 14-year-old, I had no idea what I was getting into, but the thought of going to a warm tropical country & experiencing a different culture appealed to me.
Little did I know at the time that in one short week the whole course of my life would change.
In a small town called San Juan de la Maguana, I worked at an orphanage building a kitchen & playing with the kids, where for the first time I was exposed to extreme poverty & to the children affected by it.
As I drove past ramshackle “homes”, I was unprepared for what I witnessed. Seeing emaciated children with swollen bellies (due to a lack of protein) on TV was nothing like experiencing it in real life. Unable to afford shampoo, many of the kids also had hair fungus. And even though there were parasites in the dirt to infect open wounds, most of the children did not own a pair of shoes. Clean drinking water was a rare commodity.
Because of what my eyes (& heart) witnessed, I knew that whatever I did with my life would be in service to the vulnerable.
Since then I’ve had the opportunity to work in the Middle East with Palestinian refugees who are deemed the “scum of the earth” in Jordanian society. After suffering a long, traumatic war, they were expelled from their country only to find themselves just as unwanted in their new “home”. Though this refugee neighborhood was considered so dangerous that even taxi drivers refused to enter it, it wasn’t long before I discovered that there was nothing to fear.
When I first began teaching English as a second language to a class of elementary school boys, they were incorrigible, frustrating my every effort. It’s as if they didn’t want me to like them, seemingly doing everything within their power to push me away.
Taking into account their life experience, I understood that what they needed even more than book learning was affirmation & encouragement. So I did my best to affirm & encourage them, and eventually, as a bond of trust formed between us, their learning took off.
Although their culture & religion was completely unlike my own, I realized that it didn’t matter how different someone appeared to be from me, in reality, people all over the world were searching for the same things: to be seen & to be valued & to be loved.
Currently, I’m in Liberia (West Africa), by far the most challenging place I’ve worked to date. Even though the 14-year civil war in Liberia ended six years ago, as the second poorest country in the world, Liberia has a long way to go toward recovery & development.
Never have I been more grateful to grow up in America than I am right now while in a country with no electricity, where only the very rich are able to acquire generators, where rape was made illegal only six years ago & where prostitution still remains legal. A child is considered fortunate to make it past their fifth birthday.
In an attempt to care for the children who lost their parents in the war or to poverty-driven diseases, more than 100 orphanages were created. Currently, I work with an organization called Orphan Relief and Rescue in the child development program where I teach Bible lessons to the children. But mainly, my “job” is to love, value & nurture them.
In a broken & corrupt society still in survival mode, where children are deemed valueless, I want each & every child to know that they are important, their voice matters, and more than anything else, that they are loved. Not only have these children lost their parents, but many have also experienced abuse & life-threatening diseases.
One of the sweetest girls I’ve met is Jenny (not her real name), who while living in the bush with her family, was bitten by a snake. Due to traditional tribal beliefs, Jennie’s family was convinced she was cursed & abandoned her. Thankfully, someone found her and brought her to Monrovia where she was placed into the orphanage where I work.
Jennie is thriving now & every time I see her smile or hear her laugh, I’m grateful that her life was saved. It’s apparent that God has big plans for her. Yet surely God has big plans for every child. It makes me wonder how many “Jennies” there are out there, & if there is anyone to advocate for them.
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Holding this angel in my arms as she fell asleep reminded me of how my mom used to hold me as a child. My heart ached to know that so many children never know the love & nurture of a mother.
Here’s another heart-wrenching, yet ultimately redeeming story. When a gravely ill, single mother of four living in the bush had no means to get to a hospital, let alone pay a hospital bill, her four children all under the age of seven, set her in a wheelbarrow and went in search of help.
Tragically, they never found help & their mother died, leaving them alone to fend for themselves. Thank God that the children were eventually found & brought to the orphanage in Monrovia where I am now privileged to witness them healing & smiling once again. They are a part of a new family with “brothers and sisters” who look out for them. These remarkable children have finally found refuge & are overcoming their hardships together.
Although I have days where I feel helpless to fix the overwhelming problems of Liberian society, it takes the weight off to know that I am doing what I can – right here, right now – to love the children in front of me. And to see their hearts filled with joy & hope again makes living without electricity or running water more than worth it!
Even though I may be making only the smallest of dents in Liberia, I know that God is using this love to change lives & the world, as Cindy once put it – "one hug at a time".
So, my suggestion to anyone who wants to make a difference in this imperfect world of ours is this: wholeheartedly love the people in front of you, even at the risk getting hurt, and even if it goes unmatched or unreturned. This is the LOVE that changes the world.
A "spa treatment" in the Dead Sea (Service trips also provide an opportunity for travel, adventure, fun & friends.)
Celebrating the goodness of God at ancient citadel ruins in Jordan
Please feel free to leave a message about how Leighanne’s story inspired you. My hope is that we can give back to her a little of the love & encouragement she so freely gives.
It's Happy in Here (TM) (Series) | How to Be Happy: 22 Tips to Everyday Bliss by Cindy O'Krepki
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