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'Topper graduate helps nurture community service in Sierra Leone

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By Kirsten Laskey

As a college student and a U.S. citizen, 2006 Los Alamos High School graduate Elena Gustafson feels privileged but believes with that privilege comes responsibility to help others throughout the world.She is not the only one; several LAHS students share her feelings.Gustafson is taking on that responsibility by being an active member of Youth Development Initiatives, which is a student-run organization at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Gustafson is a sophomore at the school.Youth Development Initiatives works to empower youth in Sierra Leone by encouraging them to design and implement community service projects in their communities.The organization encourages young people by selecting a proposal for a community service project and providing the financial support to implement it.For instance, last year, a proposal to purchase and install mosquito nets as well host workshops to prevent malaria received $500 from the organization.This year, organization members hope to continue the work by traveling to Sierra Leone and host a workshop to select other proposals.To accomplish this objective takes money and the LAHS Coalition for Peace is lending some assistance by hosting a fundraiser next week.During the fundraiser, high school classes will be competing to raise money for the organization.The hope is, Gustafson said, to raise at least $500 to fund one project.The money will be well spent, Gustafson said, because pretty much 100 percent of it will go directly to the Sierra Leone.To garner support for the cause, Gustafson has been giving presentations at the high school and community agencies.“I’ve been emphasizing the history of Sierra Leone ee (which) I think can be overwhelming for people” because of its long history of civil war, poverty and other conflicts, she said. “It’s a hard thing for students to hear about.”Gustafson added as a high school student, she felt restricted. She knew there were problems in the world but felt there was nothing she could do.However, Gustafson said, there are ways young people can get involved.“I feel very strongly that we need to be active,” she said.Young people are targeted in organization, Gustafson said, for several reasons. She explained once young people graduate from high school in the African country, there are very few job opportunities available to them.Additionally, one of the reasons why the civil war began in Sierra Leone was because young people became frustrated with the lack of jobs and the lack of effort on the government’s part to do anything about it.“We want to stop the cycle of youth frustration and disempowerment,” Gustafson said. “(We want them) to feel like they can make a difference.”The organization also turned to youth in the U.S. because the problems in Sierra Leone are not exclusive to this particular African country; the conflicts impact the world.Gustafson said it was more than just rebels and government officials that caused the civil war. Sierra Leone, which contains large deposits of diamonds, has been abused by diamond companies, which also caused the civil war.“We are all connected to it,” she said.The organization chose Sierra Leone to receive its aid because the country has suffered 10 years of civil war. For the past six years, it has worked to recover from this decade of war. Although the country has a democratic government and elections, it still has a lot of work to do, Gustafson said.Poverty is a major concern. She said Sierra Leone currently ranks as the poorest nation in the U.N. Human Data Index. The annual income for a Sierra Leone citizen is $100-$200.Additionally, Gustafson said that although the country receives money for aid, finances do not always go to the right places.Musa Kpaka, a student at Whitman College and a Sierra Leone citizen, founded the organization last year.Gustafson said Kpaka was awarded a $10,000 grant from the 100 Projects for Peace, a program operated through the Davis Foundation.He used the money to hold a youth empowerment workshop in Sierra Leone during which the mosquito prevention proposal was selected for financing. Kpaka also publicized the results of the project to garner support and to prove the program is effective.The organization is currently working on becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.Kpaka held presentations about the organization on the Whitman campus, which is where Gustafson learned about it. “Musa was doing a few presentations around school ee I went to one of the workshops and I was really impressed ... (and) excited to be a part of something that gives money and resources to the youth,” she said.Gustafson will take an active part in selecting the next community project to support. In March she will travel with Musa to Sierra Leone to host the next workshop and accept a new project.She said she is excited, not only because of the work she will be doing but because it will be her first time out of the country. “I think it will be an amazing experience,” Gustafson said.For more information about Youth Development Initiatives, go to www.whitman.edu/ydi.