DeKALB – Lynnea Erickson Laskowski of DeKalb travels once a year to Bo, Sierra Leone, in Africa, where she volunteers with the Jonathan Childcare Center, an orphanage and school. Visiting after years of civil war, health emergencies such as cholera and Ebola, and deadly mudslides, Erickson Laskowski’s experiences helped her understand the humanity of the Sierra Leonean people.
Having visited the country more than nine times, Erickson Laskowski realized the disasters and devastation the Sierra Leonean citizens lived through could have happened anywhere in the world; it could have happened to people here in the United States. She describes the help that is needed “is not a handout, but rather a helping hand.”
Erickson Laskowski, director of communication and prevention services at Safe Passage Inc., uses her knowledge of social service to help bring gender equality and electricity through solar power to the people of Sierra Leone.
Erickson Laskowski met with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton to talk about her experiences in Sierra Leone volunteering with Jonathan Childcare Center.
Milton: How and why did you get involved volunteering in Africa?
Erickson Laskowski: I first started going to Bo, Sierra Leone, in 2009, and I have been there almost every year since. I went in February 2017 and am going back February 2018. My friend went there in college to volunteer on a mission trip. She met a little girl she later went on to adopt, and the girl is my goddaughter and now lives in the United States. At Christmas 2009, I went to Africa with that friend. I got connected to the people there and have kept going back.
Milton: What do you do in Sierra Leone?
Erickson Laskowski: I help at the orphanage and school as a sponsorship coordinator. I help with fundraising stateside and help deliver letters and presents. I help with budgets, policies, strategies, social media and the background work. Sometimes my husband, a civil engineer, comes, and so does my brother, an electrical engineer. My brother has gone with me now four times, and my husband three times. My family loves it, too, and they also have created very strong connections with the people there.
Milton: How has your family helped in Sierra Leone?
Erickson Laskowski: They helped install solar power in 2016, and we are currently updating and expanding that system. The orphanage never had electrical power before, they used generators, which was every expensive. Now, with solar power, there is enough electricity for a light in each house and in the library, and enough electricity for a computer and printer in the orphanage office. With electricity, the students now have more time to study.
Milton: What is life in Sierra Leone like?
Erickson Laskowski: There is minimal electricity, but there is a well with clean water. The well needs to be hand-pumped. The outlying areas do not have clean water, and there is no running water. You wash with a bucket shower. It’s definitely a change. But being there for three weeks, almost a month, is like going to my second home. I have many friends there and very close relationships. At first, it was difficult with no running water or electricity at night, but now I’m used to it.
Milton: What is the weather like?
Erickson Laskowski: It is always hot, but February is the dry season. It’s hot all day and there are a lot of mosquitoes and flies. It is a tropical country with rainforests. There are no elephants or giraffes. From April until November, there is rain almost every day with downpours. In Bo, there are chickens, goats, cats and dogs. Some of the children had a giant rat as a pet they named Grumpy.
Milton: What do you bring with you on your trip?
Erickson Laskowski: In my carry-on, I bring bug repellent, malaria medicine, shampoo, deodorant and casual clothing, like sandals and tank tops. In my big suitcase, I bring gifts and items for the children at the school: school supplies, soccer balls and tools that are hard to find or purchase there. I don’t bring sunscreen, because when it’s sunny out, I stay indoors or in the shade. You adjust to the culture.
Milton: What do you love the most about Sierra Leone?
Erickson Laskowski: I love being able to see the kids grow up. When I first went, they were 2 or 3 years old, now they’re 10 or 11. They’re now young adults, and we have a long-term relationship. They had a very different upbringing than me, and I’m committed to those kids. It’s important for me to get back as often as I can. Going there isn’t just a fun vacation to go once. It’s hard for me to imagine not going back to check in. It’s difficult to go almost a year without seeing them. The older kids have smartphones, and they can email and use apps like Facebook and What’s App to stay in touch.
Milton: How did the spreading of Ebola effect your trips to Africa?
Erickson Laskowski: When I was in Africa in 2015, the orphanage was under quarantine. Schools were closed for a year and a half because of Ebola. They had to release ancillary staff. Even though Ebola was an issue, and my friend and I knew about it, we still went. We went for three weeks and helped at the hospital. For 21 days after I returned home, I had to take and record my temperature to the DeKalb County Health Department. Coincidentally, I was also in China during the swine flu.
Milton: Tell me more about Jonathan Childcare Center.
Erickson Laskowski: There are 60 kids in the group home and 500 kids in the school. We help support kids with food and a place to stay and try to reconnect them with their family members. It is not the typical orphanage-style of care.
Milton: What would you like readers of the article to know about Sierra Leone?
Erickson Laskowski: I think it’s important for them to recognize the humanity of the people there. Africa is not a continent where white people can come over and save them. It is a country full of trauma, including wars, cholera, Ebola and mudslides. I am blessed to be helping these people. I look at is as partnership, not a handout. I help them as I would my best friend. What these people have gone through, it could have been me, it could have been any one of us.
For information or to donate to the Jonathan Childcare Center’s solar upgrade, visit www.gofundme.com/jcc2018.