A brass bell rang out on the morning of Sept. 26, 2007, beckoning students, parents, teachers, and several visitors for the first day of classes at the CRC Primary School in Kabala, Sierra Leone.
Some 100 students in grades one through four settled into their classrooms once everyone had prayed. While supporters toured the facility, the young people got down to the business of learning.
Several years in the making, the school will soon finish its first year of educating young people in this remote town that was the site of terrible violence and bloodshed in the 1990s during Sierra Leone’s lengthy civil war.
“This school is the legacy of a long period of work in Sierra Leone by Christian Reformed missionaries who stayed during the war to help the refugees. I can’t say enough good about them,” says Dennis deGroot, principal of Fraser Valley Christian High School in Surrey, British Columbia.
CRC missionaries began to work in Sierra Leone in 1979, helping to establish leadership training and literacy programs. They also played a role in bringing health care to communities, as well as starting nearly 20 worshiping communities.
The school in Kabala owes its existence to all of the right people coming together at the right time, says Paul Kortenhoven, a long-time missionary in Sierra Leone with Christian Reformed World Missions.
Supporters from North America, together with local leaders and education officials in Sierra Leone, were able to obtain the necessary resources and work out all of the challenges that could have derailed the project.
“The need for education in Sierra Leone is huge. I see the Lord’s leading in this,” says Kortenhoven.
The Kabala school itself is a reality due to the efforts of the Fraser Valley Christian school system, which raised $250,000 to build and operate the school. The B.C. school did this in the midst of a more than $6 million capital campaign to renovate their school. It was while planning their project that they learned of the opportunity to fund and open a school in Sierra Leone.
DeGroot says he and others in the school system believed it was their duty as Christians to spread their wealth and to support the expansion of education elsewhere in the world. Fraser Valley students held fund-raisers and currently correspond as pen pals with students in Kabala, he says.
“This is really a critical piece,” says deGroot. “North American kids need to see beyond themselves and the consumer culture. Already, because of this, we have kids who have developed a global sense for justice in the world.”
Asher deGroot, Dennis’s son, has been deeply involved in the project, having traveled to Kabala to help design and oversee construction of the school. He has been there as part of his work-term commitments for his master’s level studies in architecture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“It was an incredible thing to be part of,” says deGroot. “The churches in Kabala and throughout the north of Sierra Leone are extremely excited about the opportunities this new school affords their children and the alternative education it seeks to provide.”
Among the early backers of the school was Jo Kuyvenhoven, an associate professor of education at Calvin College who has done extensive research on and work to boost the literacy rate in Sierra Leone. She approached Dennis deGroot, a friend, with the idea of helping to establish a primary school.
“Sierra Leone was cut to the bone as a result of the war,” she says. “Children had no school to go to. The depth of trauma that I saw among the people there was awful.”
Now that it is open, says Kuyvenhoven, the school “is a light on the hill, a model, a place where you can see children succeed and they will be able to enter the mainstream and service leaders for the church in Sierra Leone.”
In an interview published in a Fraser Valley Christian High School newsletter, James Tamba Koroma, who is headmaster of the school, discussed what having this facility in the community means.
“A Christian school is not only for the education of the mind, it is for the whole life of the child,” he said. “We teachers should create an atmosphere of love, sharing, and caring.”
Dennis deGroot says that is exactly what is happening. Christian and Muslim kids are in classrooms together, learning what they need to help them succeed in life.
At the same time, he emphasizes, “we are standing on the shoulders of pastors and missionaries who did a lot of work before we ever arrived.”