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Maple Valley church builds a bridge of hope to Sierra Leone
Mike Jeffrey was appalled the first time he went to Sierra Leone in 2008.
Though the country's 12-year civil war, in which thousands of people had been killed or displaced, had ended, the Maple Valley resident noted the humanitarian effort was "pathetic."
"I just witnessed things where we treat our animals better than they treated their people," Jeffrey said. "There was no medical treatment, and even if there was you wouldn't want to go there. There were flies everywhere. No medicine, no bandages."
Today, Jeffrey and other members of The Bridge of Hope, a non-profit organization, left once more for their annual mission trip to the West African nation. First owned by the Sierra Leone Company, it became a British colony in 1808, and gained its independence in 1961. In 1991, a civil war broke out when a rebel group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attempted to overthrow the government. The RUF failed in its efforts, however, and by the time the war ended in 2002, over 50,000 people had been killed. The civil war was depicted in the 2006 film "Blood Diamond" starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly.
In the four years since Jeffrey's first trip, however, the humanitarian work is beginning to show. The community now has a medical and dental treatment center, as well a seven-room school house.
The Bridge of Hope was created in 2008 as a result of the combined missionary effort between the New Community Church and Jefferson Baptist Church in Sierra Leone. It has sent a mission team out every year since 2006 and plans to send two groups this year. The first group left Feb. 16 and the other group will leave at the beginning of March. The trips last 10 days.
As part of its ministry, Bridge provides medical treatment, trains teachers and pastors as well as runs vacation bible school-style sports camps with donated soccer balls and uniforms. Although it was originally formed by two churches, Bridge now represents four different churches, with members coming from all over the country.
Additionally, many of the volunteers hail from secular professions, such as doctors, nurses and builders, whose skills are sorely needed in the country ranked lowest on the Human Development Index.
As part of its mission, Bridge has focused exclusively on the Makeni area, which is located in the central region of Sierra Leone. Bridge President Geri Jeffrey explained this has allowed them to cultivate good relationships with the local people and create long-term strategies.
"It takes a lot of time and effort, so you want the people to know we care," she said. "Overall we're trying to help them build community again."
For the first several years, Bridge concentrated on providing infrastructure as Makeni had no medical treatment centers, schools or basic utilities such as electricity.
"During the civil war they lost everything," said Bridge member Lanie Eylander. "You're just starting to see things improve in recent years."
The biggest problem, Mike Jeffrey explained, is the severe deficit of people with either an education or financial resources, due to the civil war.
"When there's war the people leave the country," he said. "Everybody who could leave left. Throughout the continent the infrastructure is falling down. There's been a void, and churches are filling the void."
Although nations such as China have begun investing in the country's infrastructure, Mike Jeffrey stated, their interests are not necessarily beneficial to the people of Sierra Leone.
"The governments that are in there are there for a reason," he said. "They're there to build roads that lead to forests they want to cut down."
For members like Mike Jeffrey the powerful experiences they felt during their first trip compelled them to return.
"I just had a lot to process when I got back (home)," he said. "At the beginning I was angry that people are treated like that. But then I got angry at myself, because it's my problem, too. When you get back you really get convicted and God really puts it in your heart about what you've witnessed."
Others such as Jeff DiDonato his daughter, Michaela, are going for the first time together.
Michaela DiDonato is one of several Tahoma students, along with Taylor and Mackenzie Boland, going on the trip.
"I've gone to Mexico and I love how close I am to God when I get back," Michaela DiDonato said. "It seemed like a cool country to go to because they are the most needy."
"It sounded fun," Taylor Boland said. "It seemed like a good opportunity to get closer to God, to see others that are less fortunate."
Marnie Hoover, another member, has an extensive background as a missionary. A musician and worship leader at New Community Church, she spent 12 years doing ministry work in slums in India, and seven years working in Latvia. Because she has been overseas, she said she has not had the opportunity until now.
To help prepare them emotionally, physically and culturally for the trip they have attended training sessions since October.
For example, because belief in witchcraft is widespread in the country, certain words or expressions that are harmless in America can receive a very negative reaction, according to Hannah Brown, a Tahoma High graduate who went on last year's trip.
Brown said that using the word "crazy" is offensive to Africans and can land them in court because of its superstitious connotations.
At the same time, she described the people in Makeni as unusually cheerful.
"They're so used to death," she said. "They were really happy over so much. You have kids trying to touch your hand or just smile at you. They seem so genuinely happy that you are there."
She also noted that despite rampant poverty, many of them owned cell phones and even used their food money to buy minutes.
During their trip, the Bridge members will stay in a walled compound. Each member pays for their own trip costs through fundraising.