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Educating orphans: Browntown woman makes improving Lberian schools her mission

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Beth Iden, of Browntown, spends time at Browntown Baptist Church assembling donated school supplies into a portable classroom educational cart that will be shipped for the Liberia Orphan Education Project in West Africa. Below, more of the supplies are shown. Rich Cooley/Daily

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School supplies that have been collected to be sent to Africa are shown.


By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com
BROWNTOWN -- Elizabeth "Beth" Iden is not a teacher, and before eight years ago she never had been to Africa. Things change.
Now the Browntown resident travels to Liberia, on Africa's western coast, every year with her nonprofit organization, the Liberia Orphan Education Project. She helps train teachers for two orphanage schools and the Lott Carey Baptist Mission School in Brewerville, outside the capital Monrovia.
"We were sending school supplies and then we were asked to start sending teachers," she said. "We were asked to go to the schools in Liberia."
In eight years Iden has achieved a lot through the program she founded after hearing a visitor speak about Liberia at Browntown Baptist Church. Iden grew up in the Caribbean when her father was a Peace Corps director, and she has traveled to South America, Europe and to Haiti. Nothing prepared her for Liberia.
After Liberia's two civil wars spanning 14 years, Iden and other volunteers had a big job ahead of them, organizing programs, arranging for teachers and shipping supplies overseas twice a year.
Currently, she's preparing a shipment of school supplies to send at the end of the month, and today at a booth at Front Royal's Festival of Leaves she will sell crafts to raise money for more supplies. All of the proceeds will pay for teachers' materials for Liberia.
Despite everything she's seen in the last eight years, Iden remains optimistic.
"Let me tell you about what we did last month," she said. "We had the best month."
•••
Once one of the most prosperous nations in Africa, Liberia was devastated by years of civil war, Iden said.
When in Africa, she and other volunteers stay at Hotel Africa, which Iden said is a shell of its former magnificence.
The country has no mail, no electricity, no running water and, until recently, little in the way of educational opportunities.
A nation that boasts the oldest school of higher education in West Africa -- the University of Liberia in Monrovia, which started as a college in 1851 -- now struggles to educate its children.
One of the organization's teachers helped build a small school that, each day, shepherds 600 children through a single four-classroom schoolhouse with straw walls and a tarp roof. Late afternoon classes instruct 50-75 adults each day before the sun sets.
Iden compares the current quality of life in Liberia to that of Haiti.
In the late '80s and '90s "there was a brain drain," Iden said. "Many in Liberia have a close relative or family in the U.S." During the wars, those who could left Liberia for the U.S. or other countries, and many never returned, leaving the nation starving for teachers and other professionals -- as well as for food.
"This little country has absolutely nothing," Iden said.
But, it's getting better.
"It's amazing each year when we go back the improvements that have been made," she said. A lot of people are returning to Liberia, too, she said.
"We just keep working with our teachers," she said. "The core group we work with is about 60."
A big confirmation of her efforts so far came last month, when the young Liberian teacher who built the small, straw schoolhouse, told her about his experience this summer.
Emmanuel Gbah is still in school, himself. A sociology student at the University of Liberia, he is an elder in his church and supports three daughters, Iden said. When he decided to travel to his home village this summer to visit family he had not seen in years, he brought along his school supplies.
"He said God told him to take his teacher's bag, so he did," Iden said.
When some of the residents of his hometown learned that Gbah is a teacher, they asked him to do a workshop for them.
"This is exactly what we have been doing," Iden said. "Train the teachers to train themselves and others."
"That's been our goal from the beginning ... so this can spread," she said.
The Liberian Ministry of Education has a curriculum for schools in Liberia, Iden said. For the Liberian Orphan Education Project, a friend of hers, Phylis Benner, helped her develop "the most basic early childhood training we could."
According to Iden, Gbah taught exactly the program topics she would have recommended for the situation.
•••
Iden would retire from her job at the Electrical Workers Union in Winchester if not for flying to Liberia every year.
Normally she would travel there with her daughter, Emmalee, and fellow volunteer Rachel Smith in February, but this time they plan to go in December for a week to attend a one-day networking conference.
She already has a lot of connections around the U.S., people who help with the project or in other ways.
Smith, of Harrisonburg, has been helping to form a permaculture at the Liberia schools, developing agricultural efficiency and educational farm programs with the teachers.
Liberia Now, an organization in Texas, has been establishing libraries in schools near Monrovia, Iden said. She worked with some of Liberia Now's teachers in June when the Texas group traveled to Africa.
Her organization also partners with Hope School for the Deaf in Liberia, which teaches children of all ages. The school was founded by a graduate of the Lott Carey school, Iden said.
Locally, the Linden Rotary Club is a big help, Iden said: "Every year [it] gives us a boat load of supplies."
The Rotary Club in Mechanicsville has been supportive too, and the members of Browntown Baptist have been making crafts to sell at the Festival of Leaves to raise money for teachers' manuals and supplies.
Life in Liberia still is tough, Iden said. Teachers make about $35 to $50 a month, even though the cost of living is pretty high, she said. When she first traveled to the country, she said the children she met never had seen a coloring book, and the citizens who stepped up to teach them had little to no teaching experience.
Iden remembers watching as one teacher gave step-by-step directions on coloring in the pictures in coloring books that children would share with each other.
"That got all of us," Iden said.
"She didn't know how to teach," Iden said. "Our teachers are real creative."
"We've seen a real change in how our teachers teach."
The Liberian Orphan Education Project can use donations of any school supplies, particularly crayons, picture books and flash cards. Donations go to school supplies or to teachers' supplies, Iden said, stressing that volunteers with the project pay their own way to Africa.
"It's better now," Iden said. "We're noticing the children are not as hungry."
"Life is getting better."

how to help
• A booth at the Festival of Leaves in Front Royal today will sell items to benefit the Liberian Orphan Education project.
• Donations of school supplies are also accepted.
• For information on the Liberia Orphan Education Project or to donate, visit www.loeproject.org or www.loeproject.blogspot.com.






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