The village of Gbonkonimah in 2014. It looked much the same in 1964.
Abbas Sherif graduated from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana in 2013. He was named the top science graduate of the university and is shown here with his award.
Starting the school day
Currently, government schools in Liberia can serve only about half of the nation’s elementary student population. Private schools, supported by nongovernmental or religious organizations, provide classrooms for many of the remaining students. Costs to attend those schools vary considerably, but at the Obama School, LAP has worked with the principal to keep tuition, fees and uniform costs at a level that families can afford while providing a reasonable salary for teachers.
School costs for one child come to about $100-$150 per year at the Obama School. But even at that amount, many of the poorest children in the village of Cow Field often cannot afford to attend. Thus, for the past 4-5 years, LAP has provided scholarships to 35 students who needed assistance. This year we are adding five more to the scholarship program, bringing the total to 40 students.
As long as students are doing well and are attending regularly, LAP will continue to support them until they graduate from the Obama School. LAP also currently supports six junior and high school students in other schools in Liberia and one college student.
Gbonkonimah is the village where LAP Chair Judy Reed and two LAP advisory committee members, Justine Michas and Suzanne Fahey, served as Peace Corps volunteers. When LAP was first organized we sent a manual mimeograph machine to the Tubman School there and later sent solar lights to the students at the school. We also sent money for tools for the village and sent rice, buckets and soap during the Ebola crisis. We have wanted to do more for the village and school but have not had a good contact there. Just recently, former residents of Gbbonkonimah have gone to the village to discuss current needs and how they can help support and revitalize the village. LAP will keep in close touch with this group, which includes several people we have worked with in Monrovia and Cow Field, and will try to find ways we can help too.
Jesse Kekula, Principal
The Barack Obama School is beginning its 7th year of operation in the fall of 2017, with approximately 350 students in grades Pre-K through the ninth grade. The school has a staff of 20, including the principal and 15 teachers, plus a registrar, a computer/clerical person, a custodian and a cook.
The Obama School opened in September 2011, enrolling over 200 children in grades K-6. The cement-block building now has eight classrooms, two offices, a cafeteria, a septic system, bathrooms and a well, all funded by the Liberian Assistance Program, through the support of friends and several grants from groups such as the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of WI-Madison. LAP also furnished the classrooms with desks and tables, bookshelves and the Ministry of Education’s recommended school textbooks.
The school’s name, Barack Obama International Foundation School, was chosen by the principal and parents to honor their ties to America. Like most Africans, they were excited about the election of an American president whose roots are, in part, in Africa.
In the summer of 2017, LAP paid to rewire the Obama School so that the school could become part of country’s electrical network. The school had first gotten electricity in the fall of 2015 but it had to use a much less clean and more expensive source of energy to run it by relying on a gasoline generator. Electricity is important in allowing students to see much better in their classrooms during the rainy season.
For students who complete high school in Liberia, and only a small percentage do, college is an almost impossible dream. In 2009, LAP identified a bright young man wishing to earn a college degree and awarded him a four-year scholarship to attend the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi, Ghana. Abbas Sherif majored in actuarial science and received his bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2013. He completed a master’s degree in math at Stellenbosch University in South Africa on a scholarship from the Liberian government and with support from individuals, including several LAP friends. Abbas is now working on his PhD in math at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban, South Africa. He is focusing on the study of the nature of space-time singularities (black holes).
LAP is also currently supporting Euphemia Sumo who is a senior in college in Monrovia and will graduate in 2017. See her photo with her family above under Scholarship for Students.
Scholarship students at the Obama School. Ten are supported by a grant from the Rotary of Madison West and the rest are supported by individuals donors to LAP.
Eighth grade students sit in some of the 39 metal desks donated to the school by Friendship International of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin.
Scholarship student Rachel Smith and her mother thank LAP for its support for Rachel.
Thanks to a grant from the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of WI-Madison to buy books and teaching materials, LAP began a summer reading program at the Obama School in 2013. Designed for K-3rd grade students, more than 100 children, from the area, not just Obama School students, attend three days a week for four weeks in July or August. Teachers read aloud to groups of 8-10 children and discuss books and act out stories. The children are also served a snack. During the summer of 2017, 4th-6th grade children are also participating in the Summer Reading Program.
Summer Reading Program
LAP members go over the books to be mailed for the Summer Reading Program.
Three children act out a story they were read at the Summer Reading Program.
Children at the Obama School show the books they received for the Summer Reading Program.
Excellent Teachers Serve Obama School
The Obama School has excellent teachers. Most of those hired when the school opened in 2011 are still there, while new teachers have joined the staff as the school has grown. Principal Kekula sets standards and expectations high, while treating staff with respect. Teachers are paid on time and encouraged to expand their own skills through in-service programs and outside educational courses.
LAP has paid the tuition of five Obama School teachers to attend two years of classes at LICOSSES, a school in Monrovia that provides post-high school education and teacher training. We also paid the tuition for the enrollment of two teachers in a 2013 course of study for C Certification, a program necessary for teachers to advance in Liberia.
Two Obama School teachers attend C-Certification Program.
LAP Scholarship student Sampson Sumo, center, graduated from the Lutheran School in Totota in the summer of 2017 and hopes to attend college in the fall. He is with his father John Sumo, one of Judy’s students from the years she served in the Peace Corps, and a friend.
In 2014 Jane visits a girl whom LAP has supported for several years at the Combat Stress School outside Monrovia. She and her father greeted Jane with flowers.
LAP has provided scholarships to several members of the Gonleh family, including daughters Weekie, who graduated from high school in 2015, and Nenlesch, who is a senior in high school in 2017-2018. LAP also supports Euphemia Sumo, mother of the family, as she attends college in Monrovia, majoring in accounting. Judy and Jane met with the family in 2014 when visiting Liberia.
Obama School’s Lunch Program
LAP provides funding for a food program at the Obama School, which was started in February, 2015. The school’s cafeteria, funded by LAP and completed in early 2014, is used to serve lunch two days a week to all 350 of the Obama students, as well as the school staff. The food consists of rice with a soup of bony fish, pinto beans and greens. The school hires a cook to shop for and prepare the food each week.
Students pick up their food in the school cafeteria.
The Obama cook serves a plate of food to a student.
Waiting in line to be served lunch
Sending Books and Other Materials to the Obama School
LAP is sending more than 40 boxes, as well as gardening and carpentry tools, and chairs to Liberia this fall. The boxes will include: fabric, a sewing machine, scissors, and needles and thread for the adult vocational education sewing class; school supplies, textbooks, a microscope, musical instruments, sports items, and clothing for students; and reading glasses for adults.
We are able to do this through our friends at Friendship International, a non-profit group located in Beaver Dam, WI, that supports projects in Liberia. They have sent containers to Liberia for several years – providing beds and supplies for Liberian hospitals, desks for schools and many other items. They gave the Obama School 40 metal desks in 2015 and carried the Obama School’s two stoves to Liberia last year.
It was very difficult to send materials to Liberia in the past, due to the high costs. Too, we prefer to buy materials in Liberia when possible, as a way to support the Liberian economy, and, because it is faster.
We have prioritized sending books because they are hard to find and very expensive in Liberia. LAP has sent several hundred reference books, picture books, and story books to the Obama School. Those books were bought at local library sales in Madison, through Craigslist, at garage sales, and from Amazon. We have recently begun to buy books at the Children’s Cooperative Book Center at UW-Madison. Beautiful new hardcover books are often $2-3 at their bi-annual sales.
Stella Marie and Tyler McKittrick, who learned of the Obama School through our LAP website, have also sent materials to the school. They have sent two barrels, with lots of school materials such as pencil sharpeners for each child, 700 pencils, paper, and DVDs. Their last barrel included badges for all the Obama School students. They had had them made at the request of the principal because most schools’ students wear badges identifying their school.
Dresses for girls at Obama School
Seamstresses in Madison, led by Madison board member Linda Grimmer, recently made 71 dresses that are each different, for all the girls at the Obama School who are in kindergarten through the fifth grade. The fabric for the dresses came from colorful pillowcases to which the seamstresses added elastic, rick rack, buttons or pockets to complete each dress. The dresses will be sent with the container shipment this October. See the photos here. We’ll post photos of the children wearing them when they arrive in Liberia in December.
Story books for Summer Reading Program
Encyclopedias and other books
LAP has received two grants of solar lights for students at schools we serve. One grant was from the Liberian Energy Network, a company begun by former Peace Corps volunteer Rich Fahey. A light went to each of the 250 children at the Obama School. The second grant came from the Bourke Family Foundation. It included 250 lights as well and nearly half were given to junior high students at the Tubman School in Gbonkonimah. The rest will be distributed to new students at the Obama School.
A student uses her solar light to read in a classroom on a rainy day.
One of the solar lights and the solar panel provided by the Bourke Foundation rest on wall of the porch at the Obama School.
As part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project, Alexandria Bassett, Ambassador Girl Scout, of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, completed a special Gold Award project for the Obama School in the summer of 2013. Alexandria made 250 button bracelets for the children at the school and mailed them, along with more than 50,000 buttons and 1,250 skeins of thread to make more button bracelets. She provided written instructions on how to make the bracelets in each student's button kit and even sent a DVD showing how she makes them. Alexandria suggested that the students make additional bracelets to help them support their education, and earn money for school projects, such as the meal program.
Judy compares the button bracelet she made with those of two Obama students.
Women put their clothing out to dry.
Children stand by an old style chair.
The principal of the Tubman School in Gbonkonimah visits with Jessie Kekula.
Children stand in front of a house, with hand prints on the walls.
Obama's soccer coach visits with students at school.
Pictures drawn by children in Obama School
An in-service class is held for all Obama teachers in the fall of 2015.
Purchasing Materials in Liberia
Since the school was opened in 2011, LAP has purchased the Liberian Department of Education-recommended textbooks for all children at the Obama School. The books were bought from vendors throughout Monrovia. Another local purchase was for school supplies after schools reopened following the Ebola Crisis in 2015. Supplies included clocks for the classrooms, calculators, protractors, crayons, glue, rulers, construction paper and grade books for teachers.
LAP also sent money to buy 15 manual typewriters at the recommendation of the Obama School board. They said that since laptops are expensive, the students could first learn keyboard skills on typewriters in preparation for learning to use computers in the future.
Another recent purchase in Liberia was of four sets of books (36 total books) about Liberian children. The books were produced by a new publisher, One Moore Books, that focuses on Liberia and Sierra Leonne. The company is US-based but opened a bookstore in Monrovia in 2015 and also sells their books through the University of Liberia. Now students at the Obama School can see faces just like their own in their books.
One Moore Books
Alexandria Bassett, a Girl Scout from Illinois, displays the materials she was about to send to the students at the Obama School.
The trunk of bracelets and materials arrive at the Obama School.
Sports at Obama School
LAP believes that participation in sports or recreation is important for students at the Obama School and we have supported such activities by paying for equipment for soccer, kickball, volleyball and basketball for boys and girls. In 2015 and again in 2017, a LAP supporter sent $1,000 for sports equipment and the school was able to buy uniforms for the boys’ soccer team and for the girls’ kickball team, as well as soccer shoes, and soccer and kick balls. The school competes in area school competitions and frequently wins trophies.
Pilot project in adult education
In the fall of 2017, LAP will begin the second phase of its adult vocational education program at the Obama School. We are making a few changes – such as expanding the class to six months and including more students. We have added four new sewing machines, thanks to the Episcopal Diocese of Wisconsin, for a total of nine manual sewing machines. (A grant from the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of WI-Madison provided the first five machines.)
The program will include 20 participants, mostly women, in two sessions. The goal of the project is to assist students in developing skills in sewing and business so that they can become employable in the tailoring field in Liberia. The instructor will help graduates find apprenticeships with established tailors.
Scholarships for Students
Adult Vocational Class in Sewing
Cooks at Obama School use new stoves LAP sent for the school food program.
Dressess made by seamstresses in Madison, WI.
LAP friends and former Peace Corps volunteers Mike and Marcy Read (and their son who was born in Liberia when his parents were serving in Liberia in the 1970s) and three more members of the family visited the Obama School in August, 2017. They shared gifts and met with Principal Kekula and some of the school’s teachers. They also visited Gbarnga, where they served as PC volunteers and had dinner with LAP advisory board members Lyn and Jim Gray who now live in Gbarnga.