A perception runs deep among the Liberian people that their government is corrupt — so deep that when Doug Collier visited in June, many people told him they believed the Ebola outbreak was political.
“There is a lot of disbelief and distrust of government, and some people believed it was a ploy to get UN dollars,” Collier said.
A Gig Harbor accountant, Collier founded Serve the Children in 1997 and has visited the West African country 15 times since then.
Now, the raging Ebola crisis is weighing on him heavily, as it does other Serve the Children volunteers around South Sound.
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“They’re my people, they’re dear to me,” Collier said of the Liberians. “I can see the fear in their emails, hear it in their voices when we talk by telephone.
“They’ve finally realized it’s real.”
It was a different kind of crisis — civil war — that originally mobilized Collier and his nonprofit organization.
“Our first goal in Liberia was to reach the small boys who’d been recruited as soldiers there,” Collier said of the nonprofit organization. “When I first visited in ’97, I saw dozens of boys as young as 7 years old carrying AK-47s and RPGs.
“Our intention was to teach them to read and write — something few of their parents could do. We made them an offer: If they gave up their weapons, we would teach them, and we started a school in Monrovia.”
Once the civil wars ended in 2003, Serve the Children began a campaign to help children with no access to education and opened two more schools. Each June, Collier and a small team from the Northwest — with different members each year — spend about three weeks in Liberia.
One member of the team last June, Tacoma chemist Stan Palmquist, had been to Liberia before — and adopted three orphans. Two of them have graduated from college; the third is a high school junior.
“The Liberians are very friendly, very outgoing, and they appreciate help,” Palmquist said. “But they don’t want handouts; they want to know how to do things. We built 10 school benches — they wanted to help us build them, and they did.”
Serve the Children has a Liberian staff of 60, including teachers, custodians and one nurse. In a country where rice is the staple of every diet, health has long been an issue.
“In Liberia, 25 percent of the children die before the age of 5 — from diarrhea,” Collier said. “There’s no clean water there. Virtually all our staff suffer from malaria. The children’s immune systems are all compromised, so they cannot fight off another infection.
“That’s one reason the death rate from Ebola cases is so high.”
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4,249 Ebola cases have been diagnosed in Liberia. Of those, 2,458 people have died from the virus.
“The CDC estimates 10 percent of the population could be infected by January, and that could mean more than 200,000 dead based on the reported death rates,” Collier said.
Given their close ties to the region and its people, Collier and his group cannot view the outbreak without emotion.
“All Liberian schools have been closed by the government because of the virus, including our three schools,” Collier said. “Of the 1,500 students enrolled this year, we have lost three to Ebola.
“One of those, I knew well. That made it personal.”
Another Serve the Children team member last summer was 20-year-old Mary Fredricks, a Tacoma Community College student.
“When we were in Liberia, I’d get all these warnings from friends and family on Facebook, telling me about Ebola,” Fredricks said. “But the people there barely mentioned it. They knew nothing about it.
“The first time we heard much there was on the news at the airport as we were about to fly home.”
Talking to school children about the outbreak didn’t seem to have an effect.
“They’re very touchy (feely) there, so you get a lot of hugs, and children who run up to you and want to hold your hand,” Fredricks said. “When I read about families being quarantined now, it makes me sick to my stomach. We’d talk about it in class, and the kids just laughed it off.”
Collier said on top of the organization’s $10,000 a month operating costs in Liberia, Serve the Children has collected nearly $15,000 since August to buy rice, oil and bleach for families in need.
Fredricks said the relationships she made while in Liberia touched her deeply.
“If they’d give me the white suit and gloves, I’d go over there today,” she said. “Even if only to offer them encouragement. What’s going on there breaks my heart.”