MACLEOD PAPPIDAS | THE DAILY WORLD
Lindsey Kargbo co-founded Rescue Ministries International with her husband, John. Together, they have built a school to serve blind children abandoned by their families and built churches in remote villages.
Kargbo poses with her friend, Mami Jalloh, and the young boys Jalloh takes care of at the New Life Baptist Church in Sierra Leone.
Some of the “Polio Boys” and their friends pose for a photo during an outreach event at the New Life Baptist Church in Sierra Leone.
Most nursing students barely have time for work and classes, let alone community service. Or running an international nonprofit.
Lindsey Kargbo just shrugs. The Hoquiam native sees the service as an extension of her Christian faith. She and her husband, John, co-founded Rescue Ministries International four years ago to serve people in his native Sierra Leone. Their focus is a school they built on seven acres of land to serve blind children abandoned by their families, building churches in remote villages and supporting and training aspiring clergy members.
She’s the first nursing student at Grays Harbor College administrators can remember who won the school’s Community Service Award. Usually, they say, they’re too busy to really have a shot at anything other than Outstanding Nursing Student. Which Kargbo also won.
After graduating from Hoquiam High School, Kargbo went off to Eastern Washington University to study athletic training. She had always been interested in sports, and eventually, she planned on going to medical school.
Visiting a cousin in Zambia ultimately set her on a different path.
“We came upon a village of people, and these people were very ill. I just remember them lying on the ground,” Kargbo said. “I felt called to care for them.”
She finished her bachelor’s degree and set her sights on Africa. She thought she would work at a hospital for some experience to prepare her for medical school, when she’d go back again to care for people in need.
She went to Sierra Leone for six months with another nonprofit, and the more she saw the state of things in rural Africa and talked with people who lived and worked there, the more she realized that being a physician wouldn’t do as much good as she thought. There was no way to run tests, or even electricity or water in many places. At the same time, there was a lack of very basic public health education — even hand washing.
“Just things that we take for granted here that we learn when we’re little, they don’t get that piece,” Kargbo said.
Qualified nurses, however, were desperately needed. Sierra Leone does have medical schools and training for nurses, but John explains that there is really no uniform standard for what they teach. Those who get proper training and certification are scarce. Many people with little to no medical training often set up shop in their homes, he adds.
“If somebody dies at your home you go to jail,” he said, but mostly people don’t care because there isn’t another option.
“It’s very disheartening,” he said. “I’m so proud of what she’s doing now. It will help.”
School for the blind
While she was in Sierra Leone, Kargbo visited a school for blind children.
“Kids were starving, things were being stolen from them … by anyone that could see — kids, teachers, anyone,” she said.
She also met John, her neighbor and an assistant pastor at her church. They went around the country together to look for ideas for a better school. There were many more like the first.
“When you’re born with any kind of disability, you’re removed from your family,” Kargbo explained. “There’s a stigma that goes along with it, like witchcraft. They think you’re cursed, so they remove you.”
They traveled to the northern part of the country, hearing that schools were better there. They came upon a government-run school that had obviously been burned during the devastating, 11-year civil war. The conflict ended in 2002, but many scars remain.
Inside the burned, windowless house, 32 children huddled together.
“The government was taking care, as they say,” John said. “She cried the whole time, thinking of America.”
Kargbo said it was hard to leave those children, but “I only had like $10 at that time, so I had to.”
She resolved to raise money to help the children she met.
Back in the States
Kargbo and John married and moved to Montesano so she could start her nursing training, and together they started their own nonprofit, a non-denominational Christian ministry.
Neither of them had done anything like it before.
“I bought a book,” Kargbo said with a laugh. Local response has been good, and supporters range from Grays Harbor to Spokane. Things are much more official now, with a board of directors handling many of the day-to-day issues. John spends about five months a year there, keeping an eye on operations and helping out. He’s also a preacher who speaks by invitation all over the world.
Kargbo stayed busy; aside from school, she did work study with the Health Sciences Division at the college, led a youth group and planned community events and fundraisers through Cornerstone Church in Aberdeen.
Health Sciences Program Director Penny Woodruff is singing Kargbo’s praises.
As a work study student, Woodruff said, “She did a fabulous job, we kind of hated to see her go. Just extremely conscientious, high ethical standards, devoted, good ideas — some of which we’re still using in our lab.”
Kargbo’s ideas for posters, alerts and supply organization are still used in the lab at the college.
“She’s got high energy, gets a lot accomplished,” Woodruff said.
The health sciences administrators all signed a letter nominating her for the Community Service Award, which is a campus-wide award. Any student from any program is eligible, but even in a bigger pool of candidates, Woodruff said Kargbo stood out.
“We were not surprised that she won it. We were extremely pleased. This was the first time we’ve had a nursing student win anything other than Outstanding Nursing Student. The reason for that is we keep them extremely busy, they don’t have time for a lot of things,” she said.
“Nursing school was fabulous,” Kargbo said. Everyone she told about her goal for her degree was supportive and excited.
“Most people want to come,” she said. “Most people are really interested in helping out with whatever talents or gifts they have. … That’s our goal once we live there, to bring teams over just to see what it’s like. We’re very blessed here in America.”
A new school
There are 52 students served through the school the couple’s efforts established. They found good, caring local teachers who stay with the kids even when funding is scarce and the ministry can’t pay their wages.
“Now they have hope, and they know things will get better,” John said.
September is the toughest time for the nonprofit, because the older students attend a public school. In Sierra Leone, that doesn’t mean it’s free.
For younger students, it’s about $100 a year, although with Sierra Leone’s extreme inflation issues he said that’s more likely to be about $150 this year. For college, it’s about $250. Some schools include the uniform, others don’t, and that’s another expense.
They rent homes for the girls and boys to stay in, although someday they would like to build their own to keep the rent expense from fluctuating. It would also be safer for the children, because there are still theft issues sometimes.
The young students stay at the school for the blind, working with their teachers and learning how to read and type braille. Another nonprofit donated braille typewriters. When the students are further along, they go to the public school with a recorder. They can record their teacher’s lessons and type their notes in braille so they can keep up and participate. Some students at the equivalent of the middle school level are close to 20 years old, because the schools shut down during the war.
Four students are going to college this year — hardly imaginable years ago. One aims to become a lawyer, others will become teachers and musicians.
“Our goal with the kids is to help them reach their dreams so they can grow up and be self-sufficient,” Kargbo said. “They’re just fantastic kids, and the community is seeing that, and they’re more apt to embrace them instead of thinking that they’re worthless.”
One 14-year-old wants to be a United Nations peacekeeper.
“That’s his dream, he’s pursuing that hard core,” she said.
“He talks like a United Nations worker,” John said with a laugh.
Violence is built into the fabric of much of life in Sierra Leone, John said. Even after the war ended, an extreme brand of Islam pervades much of the rural areas.
“Violence is part of their tradition. Even conversion, if they want to convert people, they do it by force,” John said.
Building churches in areas that have never seen one offers a different path, even for those who don’t choose to convert.
“When they see the love we show to each other, it changes the way they behave,” he said.
“That’s powerful when you see that transformation,” Kargbo added.
Dreaming of Africa
The Kargbos eventually plan to move back to Sierra Leone permanently. They’re not sure when, since they’re expecting their first child (“It’s a surprise. I want a boy,” John said with a grin) and want to wait until their family is ready for the big move.
John will preach and supervise the mission’s work, and Kargbo will focus on public health. She’ll use the time people are gathered at the church to tell them about clean water, hand washing and basic child care.
Polio is still a serious issue there, although a vaccine has existed for decades.
“As a nurse, I want to bring vaccination to the country,” she said.
Her busy life in America is going to help when they finally make their move.
“It’s great. In Africa, things will be intense, so she’s practicing how to be busy,” John said with a laugh.
For more information on Rescue Ministries International, visit rescue-ministries.com, or call 581-0174.
Brionna Friedrich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3933 or by email: email@example.com