Looking deeper

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By Kirsten Laskey

At first glance, it may seem like most Americans live comfortable lives, and this comfort affords them a limited view and feeling of the world’s troubles, but if you look deeper, Americans, at least locally, do dare to look beyond middle class lines and even across country borders with the desire to help.

Students at Los Alamos High School proved their empathy toward young people living in Sierra Leone, an African country slowly recovering from civil war, by contributing $600 to the Youth Development Initiative (YDI), a student organization founded at Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Wash., to empower Sierra Leone students to implement their own community service projects.

The contribution was significant, said Elena Gustafson, a member of YDI and a 2006 graduate of LAHS. It was the most money the organization had received in one “chunk,” she said, besides grants.

Other sources of money came from some grant money from Whitman College and fundraisers the student organization conducted.

LAHS first heard about YDI and its work when Gustafson gave presentations to classes at the high school at the beginning of the year.

Their response to what she had to say “was above and beyond what I expected.”

She added Sierra Leone isn’t widely known and it’s difficult to aid those who have troubles that are hard to imagine for LAHS students.

Yet, her speech empowered them, plus aid money can get “lost” or misused in this country, the money given to YDI has very little overhead costs and is assured to go straight to the source.

Plus, local students helped YDI award $350 to each of the seven projects selected during the upcoming conference, called Youth Empowerment in Sierra Leone, which will be held Aug. 14-16 in Sierra Leone.

Three students from Whitman College and a professor will travel to the country to conduct the conference. Gustafson will not be one of the students; she has made a commitment to another program.

A member of the LAHS Peace Club, Christine Dubois, along with fellow club member Megan Stockton, helped lead the effort to raise the funds to make this conference happen.

Their method of fundraising came in the form of a competition between grade levels and staff members. Dubois explained competitors would purchase different shapes to go on a map, those who bought the most shapes, was the winner.

The fundraiser was held in March and the senior class was declared the winner. As a result, they earned an ice cream party.

The fundraiser was selected because of its past success; Dubois said the club held the same fundraiser in 2007 to raise funds to help stop the genocide in Darfur.

She said the club decided to support YDI’s cause because “when it comes down to it, we’re all humans and just because you can’t see stuff, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”

Dubois added, “We’re incredibly pleased (with the fundraiser’s results). It was astonishing to see the school come together to help us support this thing.”

While the original plan was to take the funds to Sierra Leone during Spring Break, Gustafson said the trip had to be delayed for bureaucratic reasons.

The extra time was an advantage, however, she said because the organization was able to contact the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which agreed to give YDI on-ground support during the conference.

Plus, it allowed the group of students to raise more money.

In addition to UNDP, Sierra Leone government officials, university staff and non-governmental officers will also be taking part in the conference.

The conference will include workshops for students living throughout the Sierra Leone to create community service projects they would like to implement in their communities.

YDI will select seven to fund. Gustafson said which projects are selected depends on the number of students who attend, the type of projects they create and where the students are from.

Gustafson said the participating YDI members also plan to start an assessment of the organization’s mission and if it is working. She said they hope to conduct surveys about the problems of having non-active students in a community and how to make young people more active.

This is the second year that YDI has hosted the conference. Gustafson said the organization’s founder, Musa Kpaka, a student at Whitman and a Sierra Leone citizen, earned a $10,000 grant from the 100 Projects for Peace. He held the conference in his country and with the leftover money, sponsored a youth project of purchasing and installing mosquito nets to help reduce malaria. Additionally, young people educated their communities about malaria prevention.

About 120 students participated in the conference last year, this year, Gustafson said the numbers are expected to be smaller, around 40-50 attendees, minimum.

She added it’s important for these young people to have control of their community service projects.

“I think it is really important to make sure the local governments ee are accountable and interested in helping these kinds of projects,” she said. “It’s important for youth to see what is possible in their future.”