It started with a strange phone call, laughs Mary Ellen Ogozalek. She, along with Dorothy Kuhn, is an organizer of the Lansford Catholic Parishes Outreach Group volunteers who meet once a month to discuss and work on various projects such as Prayer Shawls, hosting the AARP Safe Driver Program, Christmas Chimneys and others.
First on the home phone and then on her cell Ogozalek heard a lyrical voice asking for a call back. Needless to say, she was puzzled. It was not unusual to get a call on the home phone, but she could not understand how someone got the cell number.
The message was from the Rev. James Sandy, a Catholic priest from Sierra Leone in West Africa who was visiting the area as a missionary speaker. He had heard that she was planning a trip to Maryland and was hoping that she could deliver some packages to his cousin in Baltimore.
Surprised but willing, Ogozalek picked up the packages from Rev. Sandy, and thus began a relationship that would take her and the Lansford Outreach Group on an exciting and life-changing journey.
Sierra Leone has suffered through 10 years of civil war. Once a peaceful and prosperous society, it has been devastated by years of internal conflict. It is infamous for its child soldiers young children conscripted by the armies and fed drugs. These are children who have seen and done horrific things.
Rev. Sandy had been collecting items to send back to his orphanage in Sierra Leone and wanted to get them to his cousin in Baltimore, who would then arrange for shipping. The Lansford Parishes Outreach Group decided to become involved with Rev. Sandy and his orphanage.
The orphanage initially housed over 300 children orphaned during the civil war.
Currently 43 children remain there. Rev. Sandy has been able to place most of the children in foster care and some have been adopted. He continues to provide support to the families that have taken in the children and he also supports preschools through secondary schools reaching over 1,000 students.
School desks findnew home
Those who wonder what happened to the desks from the old St. Ann's school will be happy to learn they have been saved from the garbage dump by the volunteers of Lansford and sent to Sierra Leone.
The Outreach Group teamed with One Love Foundation director Maria Stianchie of Summit Hill to gather the desks and many more items needed by Rev. Sandy.
The One Love Foundation is a nonprofit group organized by Stianchie to help Rev. Sandy and his mission. For the past few years it has been shipping huge containers of goods, including furniture, clothing, school supplies, the St. Ann's desks and even a van.
Last year they sent over 3,000 pair of children's Crocs style shoes. Rev. Sandy says that now this type of shoe "is known as 'thank you for the shoes' because every time a pair was given out, the children would say thank you for the shoes."
Having had an 80-foot well dug by hand for the orphanage, thereby solving the problem of water, Rev. Sandy and local supporters started work building a youth center. This will become a place for children of all ages to come to study and play.
Since candles and kerosene lanterns serve as the main source of lighting in the country, the youth center can provide an area for the children that is lighted in the evenings with a generator sent by the One Love Foundation.
"The stuff that we have here that we will have nothing to do with and consider junk, he takes and does so much with," said Kuhn.
Members of the Outreach Group have found things such as new wheel barrows left in their backyards. Also bikes that were being thrown away have been sent over. Rev. Sandy has them repaired and gives them to secondary school students who otherwise would walk over six miles to attend class. He notes that for over five years he walked these six miles to and from school every day, and he admits laughingly that he is a bit jealous of these students.
Although another container will be sent this September, the costs of shipping and import taxes are making it hard.
"We can't keep sending stuff," admits Ogozalek. "It is hard on the other side too. It would be totally impractical for us to do this if it wasn't for (Rev. Sandy) doing what he does on the other side."
In addition, he has to arrange to guard the shipment once it arrives. The poverty in the country is so great that anything can and will disappear.
Food, school materials, school fees and uniforms are provided for hundreds of children by Rev. Sandy and the parish council of St. Martin in Sierra Leone. Well over a thousand children are assisted in some way. Now he plans "an income-generating farm where the livestock and other products can also be used for protein for the children."
Once again the Outreach Group is accepting the challenge. A whimsical poster with the writing "Father Sandy has a Farm" was posted at St. Katharine's church in Lansford. Farm animals could be purchased for a small donation such as $20 for a flock of geese or $50 for a goat. With each donation a picture of the animal was posted on the sign until "Father's barnyard" was full.
The money was given to the One Love Foundation through which Rev. Sandy has access to the funds, and he then purchases the animals in Sierra Leone.
According to Ogozalek, the group was so moved by Rev. Sandy's mission because "the goal was to have people become self-sufficient and not rely on charity."
"To me that was very meaningful," said Ogozalek. "They have been through so, so much and it is easy to fall into saying 'give us'."
She explains Rev. Sandy is a leader, and he is motivating the people to become independent and encouraging the children to get an education. He understands that this is the only way for his country to become truly independent once again.
While the Outreach Group continues to work on projects benefiting individuals in the area, it has expanded involvement to include support of Rev. Sandy and the One Love Foundation.
In the spirit of the French philosopher, Simone de Beauvois, "One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion." The men and women of the Lansford Parishes Outreach Group are having an impact felt halfway around the globe.
"So," concludes Rev. Sandy, who originally got Ogozalek's phone numbers from a neighbor, "it started with boxes of T-shirts to Maryland. That's our story for now. More to come."