The connection between Columbus and Liberia took another step toward bridging the distance of 5,000 miles as the west African country’s president spoke Thursday at Brookstone School to celebrate their mutually beneficial partnership.
This was the final stop of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s two-day visit to Columbus, where her son is medical director of the emergency department at Midtown Medical Center and her grandchildren attend St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School.
After speaking at those two institutions Wednesday, the first female head of state on the African continent traveled across town to Pacelli’s rival for a different kind of family visit.
This relationship was formed 11 years ago, when First Baptist Church of Columbus introduced Brookstone to Ricks Institute, a K-12 school in Virginia, Liberia, said Brookstone School Board of Trustees past chairwoman Stephanie Hunter. Stan Vaughn, Brookstone’s director of facilities led three trips to Liberia while he served as missions coordinator for First Baptist, Hunter said. Brookstone and Ricks have been sister schools ever since.
In his invocation during Brookstone’s ceremony honoring Sirleaf, Vaughn said, “Let us have eyes to see and ears to hear a world that hurts and needs to heal and to help and to hope.”
Luke Mansour, a 2010 Brookstone graduate, testified that this partnership has lived up to that goal.
Mansour was on Brookstone’s service trip to Liberia in 2009, when Sirleaf told the representatives they were the first high school students to visit since two decades of civil war ended in 2003. He called it “a highlight of my Brookstone experience.” He and his schoolmates implemented reading programs at Ricks Institute, presented cultural exchange ideas and painted the gym.
And he befriended a 14-year-old boy named Samukai Sarnor, who became an exchange student and lived with Mansour’s family while attending Brookstone.
“He taught me that no matter how difficult the circumstances you find yourself in, it is important to realize you are blessed if you have the opportunity to learn and grow in mind, body and spirit,” Mansour said.
Now, Sarnor is a senior on scholarship at Mercer University majoring in economics and finance and minoring in information science and technology. He plans to return to Liberia next year to serve at Ricks Institute before pursuing a graduate degree.
Sarnor thanked Sirleaf for encouraging him to continue his studies “and for your strong leadership of our country.”
Cindy Sparks, Brookstone’s director of servant leadership called the connection with Liberia a “mutually beneficial relationship, and it’s reached beyond more boundaries than we could ever imagine.”
Brookstone faculty members traveled to Liberia in 2008, and Brookstone students joined them in 2009, 2011 and 2013. The trips included service, educational and cultural experiences while partnering with the Ricks Institute.
They stay connected through a pen-pal program and video conferences about topics such as the environment and leadership. Olu Mejay, the chief administrator at Ricks, and “numerous faculty members” have made multiple visits to Brookstone as well, Sparks said.
Brookstone has sent “thousands of shoe boxes filled with school supplies and toiletries” to Ricks students in the past 10 years, Sparks said. During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Brookstone sold T-shirts and raised money to help Ricks buy food for nine months. “That was such a blessing for Brookstone to be able to help in that way,” Sparks said.
“But probably our richest experience,” Sparks said, “has been with the eight exchange students from Ricks that we welcomed four different times. Three of those students went on to study at Mercer University.”
Brookstone is so proud of Sarnor, Sparks said, “we do consider him our son. He has ambitious plans when he returns to Liberia for improving his community.”
Sparks told Sirleaf, “Liberia will always hold a special place in our heart.”
Brookstone’s head of school, Marty Lester, said Sirleaf has “led the revitalization of the national economy and infrastructure.” Then he mentioned some evidence.
Under her leadership, Lester said, foreign investments in Liberia have totaled more than $16 billion, the national debt has been reduced by $4 billion and the gross domestic product has grown by at least 7 percent during much of her tenure.
Sirleaf offered more tangible examples of Liberia’s progress, examples the teens in the auditorium could better understand. Now, she said, Liberian students can see lights turn on when somebody flips the switch and see water come out of the tap when somebody turns it on.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said. “… Today, Liberia is back on its feet.”
In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Sirleaf the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the American president. In 2011, she was among three Liberian women awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” according to the citation.
Sirleaf asked the audience to think of Liberia as “a story of determination and disaster, a story of challenges and opportunity.”
After two decades of civil war, Sirleaf said, “We are so pleased the relationship between the United States and Liberia remained steadfast through all those difficult times.”
With the help of U.S. and West African leaders, the Liberian peace accords were signed in 2003 and elections for a new government were conducted in 2005. Sirleaf took office in 2006.
Since then, Liberia has been rebuilding its country through what Sirleaf called four pillars: consolidating peace and security, revitalizing the economy, strengthening governance and the rule of law, and rebuilding infrastructure and delivering basic services.
Another sign of Liberia’s progress as a democracy is the expected peaceful transfer of power when Sirleaf’s presidency, limited to two six-year terms, ends Jan. 20, 2018. She said she will “respect the constitution.”
“I am so glad I’m here, to see how you have been able to mobilize support,” Sirleaf told the Brookstone audience. “You started by sending people our way.”
Sirleaf wanted to ensure the Brookstone family knows “how thankful we are for the partnership that you have sewn.”
She urged the Brookstone students to continue pursuing their education and servant leadership.
“What you do, what you represent, what you stand for is what every Liberian, every young person in Liberia, of any African country, aspires to be,” she said. “They aspire to be like you.”
Then she referred to advice she gave Harvard University graduates during her 2011 commencement address: “If your dreams do not scare you, they’re not big enough.”
Sirleaf’s visit came at a time when the historical connection between Columbus and Liberia is being researched by local architectural historian Matt McDaniel, who authored a book titled “Emigration to Liberia.” The book traces the mass migration of more than 500 freed blacks from the Chattahoochee Valley to Liberia after the Civil War. McDaniel’s research determined 447 were from Columbus and 39 from Eufaula, Ala., accounting for about 12 percent of black emigrants from the United States to Liberia during that period.
Staff writer Alva James-Johnson contributed to this report.