Money raised by students at Houston Elementary School will go toward the construction of a cafeteria at this new school in Liberia.

Thanks in part to monetary donations made by students at Houston Elementary School, children in an impoverished community in West Africa will soon have better opportunities at schools of their own.

Beginning last fall and ending this week, Houston students participated in a fundraising effort called “Change for Change,” designed to gather funds for school construction in the central Liberian town of Gbarnga. During the fundraising period, students had the opportunity to drop coins in several jugs placed around the school, and the money collected was then channeled toward the overseas construction project.

Change for Change operates under the umbrella of Change Agent Network, Inc., a charitable organization based in Lafayette, La., founded and directed by Liberian native Eric Wowoh.

“Americans don’t really know poverty,” Wowoh said. “Even the poorest Americans have more than they need.”

The Houston project raised $2,000 for Change for Change, which will go toward the addition of a cafeteria for one of three schools being built in the Gbarnga area. Wowoh said bricks cost 50 cents apiece, so every penny counts.

“It doesn’t take a million dollars in the bank to change the world a significant amount,” Wowoh said. “It just takes that leap of faith knowing that even with pennies, God is able to take that and transform the lives of those he wants to help out. And every American dollar is worth 75 Liberian dollars. That’s a lot, and it adds up quick.”

Liberia is a nation on the west coast of Africa that’s home to about 3.7 million people. The Change Agent Network website states that it’s the world’s third-poorest country, and about 80-percent of its citizens are illiterate. Few people in the country live in situations where electricity and running water are standard features.

“Americans don’t really know poverty,” Wowoh said. “Even the poorest Americans have more than they need.”

Change for Change was originally a vision of Becky Boudreaux and Maeghan Snodgrass, a pair of educators at Westminster Christian Academy in Lafayette. The program is described as an “awareness and action initiative designed to give young school children in the United States an opportunity to be involved in bringing hope and a brighter future to children in impoverished areas of Africa, and is currently focused on Liberia.”

Wowoh lives in Lafayette and met Snodgrass at a church they both attended. Conversations followed, and the first-ever Change for Change program took place at Westminster Academy, raising about $5,000.

“We talked about the need to teach our children about tithing and giving back and letting them understand what other people have to deal with around the world and how they could get involved,” Wowoh said. “The program started there, and we decided it could be a model for other schools.”

Missouri’s inaugural Change for Change program was orchestrated by Houston Elementary title math teacher Amanda Bartlett and third grade teacher Brandon Sigman. Wowoh’s connection to Houston is the result of an amazing set of circumstances.

Included in those twists of fate was when Wowoh was attending a Christian conference in Louisiana and met David Arthur, business owner and pastor at Cornerstone Christian Church in Houston, where Bartlett attends. The next thing you know, Wowoh was in Houston sharing his story at Arthur’s church and in the process met Bartlett.

“And bingo, Amanda takes on the project with Brandon, and here we are,” Wowoh said.

At the same conference, Wowoh was introduced to Heath Vogel, who grew up in Liberia as the child of missionary parents, but was born in Houston and whose mother graduated from Houston High School. Vogel’s story includes returning from Liberia to the United States and making a point of focusing on ministry work in America. He completed training at St. Louis Christian College, did some ministry work in Lebanon, and ended up pastoring in the New Orleans area.

But the notion of Liberia kept gnawing at him, and it came to a head during the same fateful conference.

“It was one of those things where I had been resisting the call to go back to these people I grew up with,” Vogel said. “But the message in a sermon at the conference was that we sometimes put God on call waiting, and that we should take some time to listen to the messages on the answering machine. We took some quiet time, and at that point I could almost hear it as clear as day: ‘You need to start working with Liberia.’

“I said, OK, I don’t know how, but I will.”

Vogel left the sermon, stepped into another room and found out how.

“It was about five minutes later,” he said, “that a guy came up to me and said, ‘Did you grow up in Liberia?’ He had been talking to one of the elders of my church about me being over there, and he knew Eric and wanted me to meet him.”

Vogel now lives and ministers in the St. Louis area and is once again closely involved with Liberia as Missouri chapter president of Change Agent Network.

“Sometimes God doesn’t take long to get the ball rolling,” Vogel said.

Wowoh hopes to expand the Change for Change program to include collection jugs at schools all over the America. One plan in the works is the building of a high school in the village where Vogel’s parents were missionaries.

“We plan to spread it around and let every child have the opportunity to get involved,” he said. “The whole idea is for American kids to see where they’re at and where kids around the world are at. It’s not just about helping Africans, it’s also about giving kids an understanding the importance of giving, because it’s true that when we give we receive.”

“This has really helped our kids go beyond what they would normally do and step out of their comfort zone,” Bartlett said. “It’s been amazing to see them embrace this; they know they’re doing something important and making a difference in the lives of others.

“It really shows that collectively, we can make a difference.”

“The response has been very humbling to witness,” Wowoh said.

As part of the program, students in Houston and Liberia exchanged letters.

“We plan to keep the communication open by sending replies to their replies,” Bartlett said. “I think the kids here will really benefit from feeling connected to the kids over there.”

When the cafeteria at the Gbarnga school is complete, it will be a unique situation.

“We don’t feed the kids at our schools in Africa,” Wowoh said. “This is a brand new idea.”

Wowoh and Vogel were both in Houston for five days this week. They spent time Monday and Tuesday visiting with students in classrooms at the school where the recent “Change” program took place. Among Wowoh’s goals with Change Agent Network is educating young Americans about ways they can actually make a difference.

“As parents, we want our kids to grow up and change the world,” he said. “We want them to make an impact and a difference in lives of others in their society and their community. But most times we fall short of showing them how. We tell them stories of how Jesus did this and how this person did that, but we don’t actually tell them how they can do it.”

“With this program, we’ve done that,” Bartlett said. “My approach when I brought this to our administration was that this is a life lesson for our children to learn –– not necessarily that they have to take care of every other nation, but how to take care of their own community, wherever they end up in life, and learning how to give back what they’re capable of giving.

“I think that has really been instilled in them. I’ve seen so much change and so much heart in our children that you sometimes honestly might not think existed, and this may be the only chance they ever have to learn that.”

“In Africa, you have a material poverty,” Vogel said. “But because of that, you have relational wealth because the people band together. In the United States, we have material wealth, but I really believe we also have relational poverty. I think this program helps bridge those two, because we can share of our material and they can share of their relationship.”

“Lives have definitely been changed,” Bartlett said, “including mine.”

––Web site: www.canintl.org

––E-mail: info@changeagentlive.org

––Phone: Eric Wowoh, 337-781-4208; Heather Lecky, 337-739-7770; Cheri Minckler, 337-255-7000 

––Eric Wowoh email: ericwowoh@canintl.org

*Donations can be made by mail at Change Agent Network, Inc., 106 Lockeport Circle, Lafayette, LA, 70508, or online at www.changeagentlive.org.

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