Junior Toe, founder of the Community Youth Network Program. Photo credit: Morgana Wingard
Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to travel with ONE to Liberia, and I wanted to share some of the remarkable experiences I had with all of you. Since 1980, Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, has been plagued by civil war. It wasn’t until 2005 when Dr. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected as President that Liberia could begin to start over.
Spanning 14 years, Liberia’s civil wars took the lives of 250,000 people, and plunged the country into economic ruin. In many ways, the country is still starting from scratch, and has a lot stacked against it. There are few paved roads. The electricity is unreliable. Liberian schools and farms are in bad shape, and the devastating effects of poverty make progress slow.
But people are at the heart of every turnaround. And while there are many things in Liberia that are broken, its resiliency is not. In my brief time there, I saw astounding proof of that in one man: Junior Toe, who I met on the second day of the trip.
As a boy, Junior was abducted from his family and was forced -– like so many other children in Liberia — to fight in his countries’ bloody civil war. Not only were Junior and others like him forced to do unspeakable things as soldiers, but they were also abandoned after the war, left to roam the streets of the West Point slum of Monrovia (one of the worst slums in Africa) with no resources, family, food or support.
But, as miraculous leaders often do, Junior did not let his traumatic past destroy his potential. Instead, he transformed his experience into a foundation for healing by establishing the Community Youth Network Training Program (CYNP), 2010 winner of the ONE Award, where other child soldiers and street children can live and work together in a community with a shared history and hopeful future.
I was lucky enough to witness this transformational work first hand on my visit to a CYNP training farm in Bensonville. Junior introduced us to students who were learning how to grow rice, raise chickens and market their agricultural products.
Some of the children we spoke with had been in the program for years, others only a few weeks, but one thing was clear: most of the kids wouldn’t have trusted anyone who hadn’t gone through the same experience they had.
As Junior combs the streets of the slums, the hope he shares resonates because he walked in the same shoes as those he’s trying to reach. For me, meeting Junior and learning about his work with CYNP was proof-positive of the resilience of the human spirit, and the value of everything we fight for at ONE.