‘How was your trip?’ It broke my heart. Their schoolhouse was an open room separated by wooden dividers. The roof leaked every time it rained.’: Woman’s trip to Liberia was ‘eye-opening’ and ‘enlightening’

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“Think back to your first play-date or sleepover as a kid. Do you remember going to someone else’s home for the first time, and thinking how different it was from yours? I vividly remember my first sleepover with someone who wasn’t a member of my family. I remember walking into their house and seeing how different their kitchen looked, how they decorated the bedrooms, and where they spent their family time.

Going into this trip, I did my best to push any premeditated thoughts aside. I looked forward to the experiences we were preparing our hearts for, and had zero expectations of anyone or anything. I allowed myself to be present in every interaction so I would have a chance at seeing things as they really were. The purpose of our trip to West Africa, more specifically Liberia, was to visit several schools/orphanages and decide whether or not they would be the right fit for a partnership with Mindset Liberia.

Courtesy of Sabrina Snow

Mindset Liberia was founded in 2018 by my husband, Sam Killen, and my older brother, Brian-David Snow. Their vision for the non-profit was to keep the future of the Liberian people in their own hands, by providing them means to build and take control of their own healthy, productive, sustainable communities. Mindset Liberia’s mission is to improve the quality of life and future prospects of the Liberian people, by first addressing their immediate needs and then establishing sustainable development practices for long-term community growth and prosperity.

This trip was crucial for our organization, because it was the next step in our plan of choosing appropriate partners for programs seeking growth and longevity. The process can become difficult if we, as an organization, assume we already know or understand their immediate needs without actually being there to put ourselves in their shoes.

Our first of many meetings was with an orphanage called Child Survival, located in Paynesville, Liberia, a bustling community close to Monrovia, the capital city. The director, caregivers, and children were extremely welcoming as we arrived and toured their facilities. They were eager to show us where they slept, ate their meals, and held classes each day. This was the tough part for me.

Thinking back to how I grew up, and seeing how drastically different it was from Child Survival, broke my heart. As a kid, I remember asking for updated decor for my room or a new, more comfortable bed to sleep in, and my parents working their butts off to make it a reality for me. But these kids didn’t have that. They had bunk beds they had to share, with cushions barely fitting in the bed-frame, as mattresses.

Courtesy of Sabrina Snow

Nothing in the rooms where they slept looked decorative, or as if it belonged to them.

Courtesy of Sabrina Snow

The room shown to us as their dining hall had zero tables or chairs and was actually being used, at the moment, to dry laundry.

Courtesy of Sabrina Snow

Their bathrooms were outside the house, in a small enclosed area, and required them to fetch their own water to use.

Courtesy of Sabrina Snow

Their school house was an open room separated by handmade wooden dividers, and the roof leaked every time it rained. Since the government no longer provides subsidies or assistance to orphanages in Liberia, Child Survival survives solely on donations from NGOs, and what little they can get from the community. As you can imagine, this puts everyone in a bind because the kids are counting on the caregivers and director for their next meal, and the director is counting on connections or relationships with others to make ends meet.

My first thought was to try and figure out how quickly we could solve all of their needs, but I quickly remembered to take a step back and think about the long-term goal of our visit: growth and sustainability. To me, the immediate needs were obvious. But we asked the director, caregivers, and children countless questions, surveying every ounce of the facility until we got a better understanding of how the orphanage operated on a daily basis. Our objective was to facilitate long term opportunities geared towards maximizing readily available resources. In other words, the orphanage had land, access to a well, and teenagers who recently completed an NGO sponsored agricultural trade school. However, there seemed to be no actionable strategy or support to help the orphanage leverage the knowledge and skill sets the children acquired.

After spending a considerable amount of time learning from the children and caregivers, our main objective was to find ways to leverage our access to external resources to promote sustainability and longevity. The reality was, unless this organization had a plan to bring more money in, growth was highly unlikely. As you can imagine, sitting down and hearing the director talk about their day-to-day life was important for us to understand if a partnership was possible. Did the director have a vision for how to feed, clothe, and educate these kids with less support each year? Did he see the orphanage as an organization able to support the community’s needs, or as an establishment of dwindling resources? It wasn’t easy asking these questions, and it wasn’t comfortable discussing this among the group, but we weren’t there to be comfortable.

As the trip progressed, we visited one more orphanage and two more schools. Spending time with the kids and adults in the community showed us how difficult it was to make ends meet for the locals. The government was not paying their staff below senators and officials, (including police men and women, yikes!) and the banks were completely out of money, with no chance of new currency being printed. Being exposed to the normal day-to-day activities allowed us to see how important it was we didn’t just assume the needs of the communities we were wishing to partner with.

Courtesy of Sabrina Snow

As a group, we agreed to take as much time as we needed for the vetting process. This meant revisiting tough conversations and going back to the schools several times to ask more questions and see more perspectives. Of course, we wanted to help each and every school or organization we visited, but we knew it would only be successful if we partnered with those who sought growth. This is where I found my answer for the question, ‘How was your trip to Liberia?’ and why I responded with ‘eyeopening’ and ‘enlightening.’

How often do we look at a situation and think we know someone else’s needs? From the outside looking in, or across the ocean, we only see our version or perspective of their lives. As an organization we chose to spend a month, during the holiday season, to personally see, speak with, and listen to the people we envisioned supporting. We left our comfort zones to better understand their routines and experience their reality. This, we understood, was the most influential decision in our vetting process, because it revealed the true deprivation of the organizations.

Fast forward to the application process of the trip. After months of initial research, months of vetting and ground work, and some tough conversations, Mindset Liberia made the decision to partner with a school and orphanage sharing our vision for growth in education, communal involvement, and facilitating a mindset of sustainability to ensure our partnerships continue to progress.

Courtesy of Sabrina Snow

With the help of our community in the U.S. and our partners on the ground, we are currently seeking to gather resources to build two programs. Both initiatives give the partnering school and orphanage the opportunity to provide substance to the community which can eventually be monetized to support themselves and their neighboring communities.

I am so proud of Mindset Liberia and the efforts we are directing to provide the support we’ve been envisioning since day one. It hasn’t even been a month since we returned, and I am already looking back at the discomfort and uneasiness, appreciating what it taught me. Growth only happens outside of your comfort zone, and the application of growth only happens when you have the best understanding of how impactful the growth can be.”

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Courtesy of Sabrina Snow

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