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I See Myself in the Children of Sierra Leone

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During my off-season from the National Football League, I try to make at least two trips to Sierra Leone. The first trip is to visit the elementary school I built in 2008; the second trip is to bring American doctors to the community to study the medical needs of the children, as well as provide medical care.

I just returned from my most recent trip to Sierra Leone where my main objective was to observe the successes and improvements, as well as some of the continued challenges we face at our school, the Abigail D. Butscher Primary School in Calaba Town. The school is situated right outside the capital of Sierra Leone, in Freetown. It is the equivalent of an elementary school here in the United States with grades K-5. Currently, there are 240 children attending the school. Although the school is primarily in a community, there are some students that travel as far as 20 miles to attend our school. Most students do not have access to transportation and walk far distances to get to us each day.

The school is a one level structure equipped with four classrooms and a teacher's office. Needless to say, space is limited but we are making it work as best we can in the meantime. The kindergarten class is sharing a classroom with the third grade class, split with a divider to ensure privacy. But with 30 rambunctious kindergarteners, privacy is non-existent. The fourth and fifth graders are also sharing a classroom -- the atmosphere there is less hectic compared to the classroom with kindergartners and third grades.

There are six teachers in the school, including the principle who also fills in as a teacher. The student to teach ratio is 40 to 1, a number that we have determined is just too high.

Although the school is only three years old, we have already had a lot of success with the children. One of the ways we measure our success is through attendance, which is at a very impressive 90 percent. Speaking with the principle revealed how some of the students stay after school to receive help from the teachers. Unfortunately, due to the lack of resources by many families, education often times takes a back seat to making sure the family has some of the most basic needs such as food and shelter.

Nonetheless, the children that attend ADB primary school all want to be there. Their attitudes are upbeat and the smiles on their faces are welcoming.

I spent a considerable amount of time observing and writing notes on ways to improve the school. One way is by providing proper nutrition to our children; most do not come to school with any food and currently, we aren't able to provide food for them. But we are looking into ways we can do this in a sustainable manner. Another way to improve the effectiveness of our elementary school is by expansion with a secondary school. After primary school, the children need a secondary school to attend -- the MWF is currently raising funds to provide such an opportunity.

I have to admit that I am not the first US citizen to build a school abroad, but I am vested emotionally in the school and futures of those children. Whenever I see those children, I see myself in them. I was once a child attending primary school in Sierra Leone, therefore, I am not too far removed.