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Liberian Children Use Coach-Player Relationships to Fight Ebola

Children at church in Monrovia, Liberia


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Sister Grace Candiru - published on 12/20/14

Life And Change Experienced thru Sports has helped kids cope with war and now an epidemic.

KAMPALA, Uganda — A non-profit organization working with children in Liberia is using sports to educate children on the prevention of Ebola. 

Life And Change Experienced thru Sports (L.A.C.E.S.) is an organization that uses mentorship-based sports leagues as an avenue to teach children morals and values based on biblical principles.

“We use the playing fields to teach teamwork, respect, and self-esteem to combat the various effects of spiritually and physically impoverished upbringings suffered by too many Liberian kids,” according to part of an introductory letter the organization sent to Aleteia.

Throughout the ongoing epidemic, L.A.C.E.S. has used coach-to-player relationships to educate children on prevention of Ebola. And according to the organization, this has been very effective in curbing the spread of the disease even beyond the youth population, and many lives have been spared.

As the Ebola infections continued to climb in West African countries, children have become some of the biggest victims of the disease. And until recently, Liberia had the highest infection rates out of the five West African countries that were initially hit by the epidemic.

With the escalation of the infection rates, West Africa’s entire healthcare infrastructure has been stretched to the breaking point. In Liberia, it is reported that the virus claimed entire families and even small communities in some cases.

St. Joseph Catholic Hospital in Monrovia, considered to be one of Liberia’s best health facilities in the country, was forced to close in August. The closure followed the tragic Ebola-related deaths of the hospital’s director, nuns, nurses, and a priest from Spain, all working at the facility. Several other health facilities in the country followed suit and closed down.

Today Ebola has not only devastated the medical system, but it has disrupted the educational system and is now causing economic hardships on families.

With the present scenario in place, there has been limited medical care. Many people, including children, are dying from treatable diseases like malaria and yellow fever because hospitals are not accepting patients who have symptoms similar to that of Ebola.

In an effort to contain the disease, governments in the affected countries have quarantined entire villages and in some cases counties. This has caused price hikes on food items, causing suffering, especially for the children.

As well, schools have been shut down. In Liberia, schools closed down in August, in an attempt to reduce infection rates, and there are no signs of them opening any time soon.

Prior to the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, the country was recovering from a 14-year-old civil war that left behind social issues like homelessness, poverty, tribal distrust, poor health and educational system, and orphans.

But over the last 10 years, the country has been on a steady path of recovery, rebuilding infrastructures and investing in the future. Liberian children were finding new hope through increased educational opportunities and other social services.

For its program, L.A.C.E.S. enlists children between the ages of 10-14 years, and the recruitment is done by coaches in collaboration with community members and staff who select children who they think are most vulnerable in their community.  

In so doing, they take into account the situation children are faced with in a given community. And once this is done, they decide the kind of sports enjoyed by the community. But on the whole, soccer and kickball are the main sports activities the children are involved in.

In addition to sports, the children are also involved in other activities such as hygiene and sanitation, mentoring and counseling and bible studies.

Under hygiene and sanitation, children are taught practices like washing hands before eating and safe places to go to the bathroom when latrines are not available. These life skills have especially proved providential during the Ebola epidemic.

Then for the coaches who act as mentors there is a period when they have to spend time in the homes of beneficiaries. This helps them to clearly understand the situation children are faced with and in the process they will be able to advise both children and parents on how to build a better relationship.

Additionally, at every practice section, coaches share with the children from the Bible. This gives the children the opportunity to encounter Christ for themselves.

Thus, for the seven years that Life And Change Experienced thru Sports program has been in operation, the organization has been able to mentor over 900 children, both boys and girls, among them former child soldiers and street children. It has also trained 114 coaches and employed 14 staffers coming from different parts of Liberia.

Moreover, L.A.C.E.S. has been able to reconcile children who live on the streets with their families. In some cases they have helped children find foster care from among church members in the communities they live.

And one most important finding, according to the organization, is that they are able to prove through independent research that children in their program address conflict in a non-violent manner after only being in the program for just six months. 

Besides educating the kids on the signs and symptoms of Ebola and how it is spread and prevented, the organization was able to distribute personal protective equipment to over 3,000 people. Thus armed, both staff and children went out for door to door counseling for parents and children in the program. According to the organization, to date not a single case of Ebola has been reported in any of the communities where they work.

As the spread of Ebola continued to worsen in the country, the Liberian government employed several means to stop the spread of the epidemic, including declaring a state of emergency and quarantines of villages and in some cases counties. To counter the effect this had on food prices, L.A.C.E.S. had a feeding program for children.

Despite the challenges LACES has registered, the organization still views the challenges the children face as their own. "Our mission is to develop the future of Liberia, and address the barriers that our children face from reaching their full potential—not something that can be remedied overnight," the organization says. "Some children in our program do not attend school, or do not have a family structure. Assessing the needs of the individual child and helping fill those needs is what makes us to have an impact, which helps us build the future of Liberia."

Sister Grace Candiru
of the Missionary Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Church, 
writes from Kampala, Uganda.

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