Service learning story: Liberia 2014

Mr. Klassen poses for a photo with a student.

VANCOUVER – During Spring Break of 2014, Math teacher Mr. Courtney Klassen ventured to Liberia for a service project. His life as a teacher at St. George’s School made him ignorant to any West African country until Mr. Bob Swann, a minister from his church, introduced him to the idea of educating young Liberians.

The Republic of Liberia is a country in West Africa bordered by Sierra Leone to its west, Guinea to its north and Ivory Coast to its east. It covers an area of around 120,000 square kilometers and is home to about 4 million people. English is the official language and over thirty indigenous languages are also spoken within the country. Liberia’s climate is very hot and equatorial.

Over time, Liberia became the only country in Africa founded by United States colonization while occupied by native Africans. The region was colonized by African Americans, most of whom were freed slaves. In 1847, this new country became the Republic of Liberia, establishing a government modeled on that of the United States and naming its capital city Monrovia after James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States and a prominent supporter of the colony.

Mr. Bob Swann had worked in Liberia for a while, but left when the Liberian civil war commenced. From that point in time, Liberia plunged into a period of political instability that lasted until about 2004. The effects of those wars have left Liberia crippled in all aspects of national infrastructure. Two civil wars in Liberia resulted in the deaths of nearly 500,000 people and almost destroyed its national economy. Although peace agreements have led to democracy and peace, Liberia is still trying to recover from the effects of the civil wars even today. 85% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Talk about a developing nation.

Mr. Swann’s Kwendin Vocational Training Centre (KVTC) was taken over fifteen years ago by Charles Taylor, and used as a base for his Child Soldier Army. The scars of those war years still remain as visible signs on the buildings, on the people, and in their hearts and minds as well. Nonetheless, Mr. Swann has felt a commitment to the village of Kwendin, and has led teams of medical and education professionals back to that village every year to assist in the rebuilding of the community and the school there.

Mr. Courtney Klassen recalls, “This past December, I heard Bob talking about the coming trip and how the goal for the school was to develop the Math and Science classes. When I heard those plans, I thought, ‘Those are all things that I do! I should be a part of this year’s team!’ Then my wife leaned over and said, ‘You should go!'”

The next day, Mr. Klassen arranged a meeting with Dr. Matthews for the purposes of explaining the trip and to see if he could have permission from the school to miss nearly three weeks of classes for the trip. In March, after being granted permission to go, Mr. Klassen and company flew from Vancouver to Montreal, from Montreal to Brussels, and from Brussels to Freetown, Sierra Leone. A transfer flight carried the crew from Freetown to Roberts International Airport, just outside of Monrovia, Liberia. However, Kwendin is in Nimba County, some 400 kilometres away from Monrovia. 16 hours were needed to drive between the two locations because of the poor state of the Liberian highways. Mr. Klassen says, “The most dangerous thing you can do in Liberia is drive. So we hired drivers who took us wherever we needed to go. That was very helpful.”

Aside from the gruelling travel days, Mr. Klassen enjoyed teaching in Liberia.

“It was special to teach people who really thirst for an education in a different way than my students here at St. George’s. They have been denied so many basic things, that being able to share it was pretty special. The Gr. 9 class that I taught had seven students who ranged in age from 16 to 23 – and not because they were dumb kids, but because they had lived through years of war and recovery from war. Education became a luxury for many people, and one that sometimes had to be delayed while the immediate needs of life were being met.” Mr. Klassen’s time was also spent on private tutorial sessions with anyone who wanted help in Science or Math, outside of school.

When asked what he took out of this trip, Mr. Klassen responded, “I got a snapshot of what life is like in much of the rest of the world. I got an understanding of the hardships that people go through in war-torn regions. I got a glimpse at the suffering of people who are thrust into a war that they never wanted to be a part of. I saw the drawings and artwork of children who were forced to fight, or else condemned to die. I guess what I got out of it was an education. I had my mind and heart opened to things that I was never aware of in the first place.”

After another 16-hour drive back to Monrovia, the group took a direct flight to Brussels. Then they flew from Brussels to London-Heathrow, and then from Heathrow directly to Vancouver. “The time we got to the airport in Monrovia to the time we exited the International area of the Vancouver Airport was 32 hours! I set the stopwatch on my phone about 15 minutes after we arrived at RIA, and stopped it just after handing in my customs/immigration card. It read 31:54. That was a long day…or two…”

Upon his return, experiences in Liberia started to affect his daily life emotionally. Having become more aware and sensitive to the plight of international peoples, Mr. Klassen’s inventory of empathy grew. “I think it’s partly the knowledge of how truly gifted and fortunate we are to live in a place like Vancouver, that overwhelms me. We think nothing of spending $2.55 at Starbucks for a cup of coffee…but that’s basically a day’s wage in Liberia. I can’t imagine spending my entire day’s salary on something as trivial as a cup of coffee. We have so incredibly much, we’ve been gifted and blessed beyond measure – and we take it for granted.”

Mr. Klassen’s message to all St. George’s students is: “Live life the way so many others do, and share with them the things that they can do to help their country grow and develop!”

St. George’s includes as part of its mission statement that our community accepts responsibility for the betterment of society. The Service Learning department manages all service opportunities. From an 18-day service trip in Peru to helping with a marathon, students are able to foster an understanding of global issues and contribute positively in the broader community.

Media by Mr. Courtney Klassen and Google Images