Sports programming in Liberia helps children heal from emotional wounds caused by the disease
When Ebola virus disease infiltrated Liberia in 2014, life changed for everyone. It is estimated that more than 10,500 people were infected with the disease, and 4,800 people died.
But even those who weren’t directly affected felt a shift in the atmosphere. At first, many people didn’t believe that the virus was real. Thus, people continued to die, and the country was in chaos. When Samaritan’s Purse began spreading awareness messaging, the tide began to turn. But with awareness came isolation. People stayed away from one another. They didn’t visit each other. They didn’t attend work or social functions.
“We never knew what Ebola is,” said James Sia, a woman who lives in Lofa County, the epicenter of the outbreak. “We were very, very, very afraid because every day people are dying.”
Children were especially affected during the Ebola outbreak. Schools closed. They weren’t allowed to see their friends. Before the outbreak, Samaritan’s Purse had children’s sports programs—known as active fellowship—in many communities. But when all attention turned toward stopping the spread of the virus, these programs had to be abandoned. As children watched their family members die, they had no outlet to escape the harsh realities around them. They couldn’t just be children.
“The children were very, very sad during that time,” said Fokoe Saah, a resident of Lofa County who has seven children.
One active fellowship teacher, William Baroyon, said that the children used to ask him why they weren’t allowed to play anymore. As the spread of Ebola began to slow, teachers like William decided to start active fellowship in their communities again.
Children were eager for an outlet. But parents and community members were still concerned about following preventative measures against Ebola, so active fellowship teachers began using the opportunity to teach children things like proper handwashing to help prevent the spread of the disease. They also shared encouragement from God’s Word. The life skills that the program taught served as a substitute for school.
Recovery for Traumatized Children
Once Liberia was declared Ebola-free, Samaritan’s Purse was able to focus once again on other projects. Our staff members saw that teachers had restarted active fellowship in their communities, so we came alongside them to help support them.
“We use sport to train children with life skills,” said Joseph Kettor, the Samaritan’s Purse active fellowship program manager. “We train them on how to respect your parents, how to respect your older ones, how to avoid bad friends. We have a lot of things that we are teaching the children.”
While still following precautions, people began communing together again and slowly healing from the wounds caused by Ebola.
“When Ebola ended, these games were like somebody breaking the silence,” Fokoe said. “It broke the silence that was long in this community.”
Since the program restarted, many parents have reported positive changes in the attitudes and behaviors of their children.
“They are greatly happy, especially the affected children, children that were directly affected by Ebola,” William said. “Coming for active fellowship is helping them forget about the trauma.”
Children Lead a Revival
Most importantly, the program has caused spiritual change among both the children and their parents. While playing, the children learn and recite Bible verses. They also learn how to pray and read the Bible. The teachers invite the children to church, and, in turn, the children often invite their families.
“[My daughter] came to know Christ,” James said. “Her behavior is slowly changing.”
Thirteen-year-old Emmenuel Saah, Fokoe’s son, began attending church and also accepted Christ. One by one, he convinced first his mother and then his siblings to start attending church with him. His father resisted until he noticed how his son had changed. Emmenuel was no longer stealing or fighting. Fokoe became the last person in their family to join the church. They now attend weekly as a family.
Nearly 3,000 Liberian children lost at least one parent during the Ebola crisis. Many others lost other relatives or friends. Every child in the country experienced trauma on some level. Through the active fellowship program, Samaritan’s Purse is aiming to reach 25,000 Liberian children with the hope of the Gospel.