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Willmar woman's personal mission to Liberia leads to a surprising gift

Funds from an anonymous contributor in Willmar have made possible the construction of an annex to the school as well as a new school in Sonoyea, Liberia. Here, local residents take sand from a river bank near Sonoyea. The sand will be used to build the school. Submitted photo

Phebe, Liberia, is still a place where it can take months to receive a letter. The rainy season makes the roads utterly impassable, 85 percent of the population is unemployed, and it takes the help of missionaries and volunteers to provide basic health care services. This hilly, rainforest region of the west African nation is known as one of the poorest in the world.It can be a very dangerous place too.

Carrie Van Epps has had to flee the country twice as rebels marched toward the Phebe Hospital where she has served as a volunteer nurse.

She keeps going back, and giving back. This time, it's in a bigger way than she would have ever imagined.

"I would never have considered building a school,'' said Van Epps at her home in Willmar.

Thanks to a $75,000 contribution from an anonymous person in Willmar, she is making it possible to construct an annex to a school in Phebe and erect a school for grades 1-6 in Sanoyea, a smaller, neighboring town.

The local residents are doing the work. In Sanoyea, they felled a tree the size of a Minneapolis office building for the lumber they needed. In both Sanoyea and Phebe, women used shovels and buckets to dig up sand along a riverbank and carry it atop their heads to town to mix with cement and create a foundation.

The six-classroom building in Sanoyea lacks bathrooms and still needs a kindergarten classroom and space for the principal, but will soon be serving its role as a school for 150 children.

In Phebe, 1,000 children are already attending school. Van Epps said they are now hoping to develop a science lab and computer room for the high school students.

Van Epps began serving as a volunteer registered nurse in Liberia in 2002 after retiring from Rice Memorial Hospital. Since then she has made five trips to the country, spending a total of 24 months there.

She didn't really expect to end up in a country so tropical and unlike her surroundings in Willmar when she approached Lutheran World Relief to volunteer her services, but no one knew how Sept. 11, 2001, would change things either. It reduced the options of where she could go in early 2002, and it led her to Liberia.

"It's hard to come home and see the extravagance,'' said Van Epps of the contrast between her home in Willmar and life in Phebe.

After her initial trips to Liberia in 2002 and 2003, Van Epps helped create and now oversees a nonprofit organization called LEAP, or the Liberian Education Action Project. It raises funds to pay the school tuition for children in Liberia. LEAP sends its funds under the auspices of the Tripolis Lutheran Church in Kandiyohi.

Students apply for the funds and are connected to their sponsors, with whom they sometimes correspond via the ever-so-slow mail. The students' parents are responsible for all of the other costs, including shoes, uniforms and books. It's a major economic challenge for them, said Van Epps.

A $35 donation pays an elementary student's tuition at a private school, where the educational offerings can be much better than those of the government-run schools, according to Van Epps. High school tuition is $150.

Currently there are 55 sponsors, and many of them give frequently, said Van Epps.

She raises funds for LEAP by speaking to church groups and organizations, and telling about her experiences in Liberia. Sometimes she finds sponsors. Other times, she leaves without a penny.

One time, a person came up to her after a presentation and asked her to sit down. Out of the blue, he offered the large donation. "I nearly fell off my chair,'' said Van Epps.

His only request was that the people of Liberia know the donation as a gift from the Willmar community, she said.

Van Epps hopes to return to Liberia and see the work. Until then she plans to continue telling the story of the country's needs. "All you can do is put it on somebody's heart,'' she said of the effort. "You ask them to stop and think about what you have.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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