Judy Reed with students in Gbonkonimah, Liberia, 1964
Front row, left to right: George Vuku, John Sumo, and Jessie Kekula.
Jane Scharer in Gbonkonimah, Liberia, 2007
L:R - Mamade Kamara, Aleo Jallow, Lawrence Douberson, Jessie Kekula, and Abubakar Sherif
Our organization began in 2007 after Judy Reed and Jane Scharer visited Liberia to reconnect with people Judy had taught from 1964-66 as a Peace Corps volunteer in the small village of Gbonkonimah, Liberia. The reunion was bittersweet: while it was exciting to reconnect with more than 15 former students, Judy and Jane learned that many of them had lost family members and had themselves barely survived the war years. The photos Judy brought from her two years in the Peace Corps were received with joy and tears, as most of her former students had few, if any, pictures of themselves or their families from the past.
After seeing so many people struggling, Judy and Jane established the Liberian Assistance Program (LAP), a small 501(c)(3) nonprofit, when they returned to the U.S. LAP raises money for its projects through an annual fundraising letter to supporters, grants and fundraising events.
Liberia is on the west coast of Africa, bordered by Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. Covering 43,000 square miles (about the size of Virginia) with a population of approximately 4.6 million, Liberia has a hot equatorial climate with a rainy season from May to October and a dry season from November through April.
Liberia became a nation in 1847 when freed slaves from the United States formed a government based on that of the United States. They named their capital Monrovia after U.S. President James Monroe.
The Liberian government was overthrown by a military coup in 1980, marking the beginning of a long period of instability and civil war that left approximately 250,000 people dead and the country's economy devastated. After a ceasefire among the warring groups in 2003, the United Nations established a peace-keeping mission in Liberia. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia in 2005 and served two terms, ending in 2018. George Weah was elected president in December, 2017 and took office in January, 2018.
Liberia is still recovering from the devastating years of war but much progress has been made in improving its infrastructure, health care facilities, housing and schools. Liberia is still considered one of the poorest countries in the world.
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A parade of students, carrying a welcome sign, greet Judy Reed and Jane Scharer at the entrance to the school grounds.
Jane Scharer and Judy Reed returned to Liberia in 2014 to see the Obama School for the first time and to visit with the principal, staff and students there. They also visited Gbonkonimah and met the principal of the Tubman School. Below are some photos from their trip.
Jessie Kekula, the Obama principal, presents an Obama baseball cap to the president of the PTA. LAP provided a cap for each staff member as well.
Children are ready for the first of several programs welcoming Judy and Jane.
The School Board presents a beautiful wooden sculpture of the school’s emblem and motto to the LAP officers.
Some of the Obama teachers visit with Judy and Jane.
Judy and Jane with the queen of the Obama School
Principal Kekula’s wife Elizabeth serves a meal in the new cafeteria for the Obama School Board members.
Obama School Principal Jessie Kekula distributes rice and soap to residents of Gbonkonimah. Jessie grew up in Gbonkonimah and was a student when LAP Chair Judy Reed taught there.
As US Ambassador to Liberia, Deborah Malac visits Barack Obama International Foundation School in 2014.
LAP is excited to have a new volunteer at the Obama School! Marian Phelps goes out to the school two afternoons a week to help with LAP’s sewing program and to tutor in algebra. She has also worked with Principal Jessie Kekula in selecting and purchasing new textbooks for the school and in assessing needs for the school. She has brought in her friend David Korte, a professional photographer, to take wonderful photos of students at the school that we can use on our website or on Facebook. And, most recently, she brought a friend who is an engineer to get her ideas for improvements to the school building or school grounds. Marian is in Liberia with her husband Malcom Phelps who heads up educational programs for USAID in Liberia.
During the Ebola Crisis in Liberia in 2014 and 2015, the Liberian Assistance program supported the Obama School by paying salaries for the 16 members of the school’s staff for the six months schools were closed throughout Liberia. We also sent money to buy rice for the Obama students. In addition, LAP sent money to buy rice, buckets and soap for the village of Gbonkonimah, where our chair served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s.
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. The family is now preparing to send baseball caps to all the children at the school.
The event was held at Christ Presbyterian Church in Madison, Wisconsin, Sept. 7 and 8.
Obama Principal Jessie Kekula attended the program and was honored for his work at the Obama School at a reception on Friday night, Sept. 7. He also addressed the event participants on Saturday, Sept. 8. Lyn Howell Gray, a former Peace Corps volunteer who lives and works in Liberia, also attended and was honored on Friday night for her work with LAP.
On Friday night, the celebration began with the showing of a recent award-winning film about history, memory, and land rights in Liberia, “The Land Beneath our Feet.” The film was co-produced by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Gregg Mitman and London-based filmmaker Sarita Siegel, and features Liberian and LAP friend Emmanuel Urey, a recent PhD graduate from UW. Prof. Mitman introduced and answered questions about the film.
On Saturday, the celebration included a presentation on LAP’s work over the past 10 years, as well as two panel discussions – one on other groups that work in Liberia. The second panel focused on various aspects of life in Liberia today. The day ended with a Liberian dinner Saturday night.