Spring 2023 / Features

Last Word – A Chair to Sit On

Service gives a personal perspective on poverty.
By Wendell Smith, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Languages

For the past several years, I have helped lead a Wilson College trip to the bateyes — sugar cane worker villages — of the Dominican Republic.

I do the following exercise with students when introducing the bateyes and what they are like. First, I show them this photo of a chair.
“What do you see?” I ask.
“A white chair,” someone replies. “What kind of chair?” I ask.
“A plastic one.”
“Good, now what’s different about this plastic chair?”
After a pause, a student says, “It’s been fixed.”
“Yes. If you look closely, the arm has been carefully sewn back onto the seat with what is probably chicken wire. Someone has done a terrific job, displaying great skill — there’s no way I could do that — and spent considerable
time fixing a plastic chair. So, what’s remarkable about that?”
The students have no answers.
“Let me reframe that question. If you owned this chair, and it broke, what would you do with it?”
“Throw it away.”
“So why fix it instead? Is it perhaps because you can’t afford to buy a new one? What does a plastic lawn chair cost? Five dollars? Ten?”

The exercise is to get them to see that beyond the obvious signs of poverty, there are the not-so-obvious ones, too. Ones that indicate need and suffering but also skill, thrift, and initiative. I am trying to get them to see that if you ask what poverty looks like, the answers are as complex as human beings are.

Of course, we all know what poverty looks like. It looks like neglect. Often the biggest culture shock our group gets when we go to the bateyes the first time is trash strewn everywhere. One January, after our group had gone to the Dominican Republic, I had a two-day turnaround between that trip and one my wife and I took to India. (We professors have to pack a lot into a January with no classes.) And I remember walking around a rural area of Goa thinking that there were so many things that felt the same about those two places — roosters crowing, the close tropical air, and the heavy smell of flowers and manure. And chief among them was trash. When I returned, I talked with an anthropologist colleague and remarked about the similarities. “Yeah,” he responded. “Trash looks the same the world over. And the trashed out places are always where the poor people are.”

Repaired plastic chairs and trash may be signs that the people are poor where you are. But it goes beyond this. What poverty looks like is not just taking care of your broken plastic chair or not having a trash collection where you live. It gets down to basic human needs, such as, do you have a place to sit? And when I think of this, I think of the Haitians I have met and their particular form of poverty. The most representative metaphor in my experience is chairs or the lack of them.

The appropriateness of the chair metaphor was confirmed for me the first time I encountered Haitian immigrants in the United States. I was with a team of migrant health nurses doing health screenings at a migrant labor camp in Franklin County, Pa., during the apple harvest. They had invited me along even though we all knew the skill I had to offer — speaking Spanish — would be of no use among Kreyol-speaking apple pickers from Haiti (or Florida).

We went to a dormitory of ten rooms in a row at the edge of a field. They had converted one of the rooms into a kitchen with a hot plate to cook some food. We were lucky that one of the workers knew enough English to translate our questions into Kreyol. As I waited while the nurses did the screenings, I was struck by a scene of men lounging on the grass under the shade of a tree in front of the dormitory. Some were sitting. Some were lying propped on an elbow. They were talking and laughing as if sitting or lying on the ground was the most natural place in the world. One they preferred. “Is this a Haitian thing?” I asked myself.

One other guy was leaning back against the dorm wall in a discarded school chair with three legs. He had to tilt the seat and lean back against the wall because the missing leg was a back one. It was the sort of precarious situation you find disturbingly fascinating and can’t look away from because you’re waiting for him to fall.

“Should I tell him this is dangerous?” I kept thinking. “What will happen if he falls? Will he be embarrassed, like a schoolboy doing what he’s been told not to do?” Regardless, he had gotten good at balancing and didn’t fall. I thought about that three-legged chair all the way home and have thought about it ever since. At the time, I could not comprehend what I’d seen. Why were those guys lounging on the ground like it was the best place to be? Why expose yourself to the risk of a three-legged chair that could topple at any second? Now, I understand what I did not see then. We have a colloquial metaphor for poverty — “to not have a pot to piss in.” Those guys were so poor they did not have a chair to sit on.

I know very few phrases in Haitian Kreyol, but there is one — “Chita ou meme.” It means, literally, “Sit your self.” It might be better translated as, “You sit down.”

When we were in the bateyes of the Dominican Republic this year, one of our projects was to do a blood pressure survey. We went house to house in teams of three: a Wilson-student Spanish interpreter, a Kreyol interpreter, and a Wilson nurse. We asked questions about healthcare access, health promoters’ work, and hypertension knowledge. Then we took people’s blood pressure.

A repeated and almost choreographed interaction took place whenever we began a survey with a new patient — we Americans and our Dominican partners would come to a house. The house would be a wooden or cinderblock shack, usually with two rooms — one for sleeping and another for everything else. There would be a space outside for cooking over a charcoal fire. And often, there would be a plastic chair or two. To do the survey, we needed a place in the shade to sit. Invariably, a Chip and Dale contest of politeness was preliminary. The person we were interviewing would insist that we sit. The unspoken or sometimes-translated negotiation was, “You are an important American guest in my house. I will honor you by giving you the chair.” And I would reply with my learned Kreyol phrase, “Chita ou meme.” “No, you sit,” the person would insist. It would go back and forth, but I would insist more and eventually win. Our interviewee would sit.

This was strategic on our part: after the survey questions, we needed the person to be seated to take their blood pressure. But it was also strategic in another sense. We had come barging into their home unannounced, bothering them with questions. It was we who should have sat on the ground or kneeled. I didn’t have the Kreyol to say the many things I would have liked to say to these people. But at least I could speak with my body and where I chose to sit, “I may look like an important American, but I am not. I am here to serve you. You have the good fortune to have a place to sit, and I will not take it from you.”

This is the attitude of humility and service I teach students to embody in the bateyes. I believe it is at the core of the ethic of service that Wilson College values and follows. We do not want to take anybody’s chair from them, especially from people whom the world has so often denied a place to sit for centuries in so many different ways.


RELATED: Ethiopia Revisited Lived Philanthropy Letter from the President, Spring 2023

Ethiopia Revisited

An alumna returns to the country she had visited a half-century earlier and helps complete a library in honor of her brother-in-law.
by Carolyn K. Pollock ’70

When most travelers think of going to Africa, they conjure up images of game parks, rainforests, brightly patterned fabrics, drums, dancing, and tribal customs. My trip from September to early October 2022 to Gambela, Ethiopia, was not to admire the local culture and take photos of the wildlife. It was for the specific and practical purpose of completing a library for a local college. Even so, still in the back of my mind were the lush rainforest memories from my first trip to Ethiopia 50 years earlier.

Desert and mountains of Eastern Ethiopia near Somalia

That trip was to visit my in-laws, Ted and Dolly Pollock, who were construction missionaries in Mizan Teferi, a mountainous area populated by the Gulla tribe, about 100 miles southeast of Gambela. My husband Bill and I took summer leave from a teaching stint in Alexandria, Egypt, to assist his parents in the mission compound workshop. We fabricated metal triangles that would bolt together to make geodesic domes. As triangles, they could fit easily into a Mission Aviation Fellowship Cesena plane to be transported to sites where they would be assembled, like an Erector Set, for missionary housing, clinics, schools, etc.

The Pollocks began their missionary careers in 1946 under the Mission Board of the United Presbyterian Church of North America, going to what is now South Sudan as construction missionaries. Their work there ended in 1962 with the expulsion of all mission workers. Subsequently, Ethiopia opened up to a mission presence, so they began doing the same work in the southwest of that country in 1963.

Bible study in the shade.

My husband and his six siblings have continued their parents’ legacy by investing in South Sudan and Ethiopia and their many people groups. Although all seven siblings have been involved in various short-term building projects around the globe, only one younger sister, Leah, and her husband, Dave Preston, became career missionaries. They began with Jungle Aviation and Radio Support (JAARS), an offshoot of Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Six years ago, Bill’s older brother Ed had a visit from Ding Gatch to his home in Maryland. Gatch was head of the West Gambela Mekane Yesus (Light of Jesus) Synod in Gambela, Ethiopia, and was looking for funding to build a library for a Bible school serving students of all ages, mostly from the Nuer tribe, which populates South Sudan as well as Western Ethiopia. (Many are displaced refugees due to ongoing conflicts in Sudan and South Sudan.) One requirement for the school to be able to offer a degree program, as opposed to just a diploma program, was the construction of a library capable of housing 6,000 volumes. Ed put out the word, and members of our large family began collecting books from pastor friends, Bible schools, etc.

Carolyn sorting books.

Sadly, Ed was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and realized he would not be able to fulfill this mission. He commissioned Leah, who does mission projects all around the world, to carry out the vision. Planning a project of this magnitude long distance is a challenge. Gambela, (also spelled Gambella), southwestern Ethiopia, is a rather depressed area economically. Just about everything had to be ordered from the capital city, Addis Ababa, which is a couple of days’ trip over unmaintained roads. Luckily, Leah is a super optimistic, faith-filled, energetic woman. Once she sets her mind to do something, it WILL be done because she is not a quitter. After Ed’s death three years ago, Leah began in earnest to plan the building with the help of other family members.

John McFarland, her brother-in-law and a civil engineer, designed the building and worked with Ethiopian Steel to have materials made to his specs. The building was designed to be nine by 23 meters, with a lovely metal roof overhang to provide an outside shaded area for studying. The trusses and other steel parts were ordered and fabricated in 2020. Then Covid put the project on hold. The metal parts were put in storage in Addis Ababa, and the books sat in a container on a dock in Baltimore because of the travel bans.

Don, Carolyn, Sara, Leah, and Jacob.

Finally, in August 2021, the situation opened up, and three family members, plus the son of the missionary after whom the Bible school is named, went with Leah and her new husband, Don Vander Ploeg (Dave Preston passed away seven years ago), to begin the construction. The project was fraught with difficulties. While in storage, pieces of the building began “disappearing,” either sold for other projects or stolen. Only about half of the building parts arrived on site (and the custom-built shelves arrived BEFORE the building pieces). The bolt holes had been drilled in the wrong places in the trusses, a gas-powered welder to be used during the daily electrical outages was broken, and there were water pump issues, etc. The time frame doubled, but eventually, the walls and roof were erected, and doors and windows were attached. The 140 cartons of books arrived and were stored in a guest house.

Last year, Leah and Don asked for help completing the building — cement stucco on the outside, painting, installation of electricity and solar panels, construction of picnic tables, and then cataloging and shelving the books! I thought, “I LOVE BOOKS! Perfect! I’ll go….”

Leah and empty boxes.

It wasn’t as simple as it sounds. The Ethiopia I remembered, with its variety of tropical fruits, wonderfully maintained compound, and cool weather, was not the Ethiopia in which I landed. This area, to the west of the Ethiopian Rift, is basically at sea level with a hot, arid climate. Gambela’s airport has one gate, two flights a day, and three security checks! The ride to the compound was over roads that had had little maintenance in years. There is no garbage collection in Gambela, so waste is routinely just dropped on the ground where it stays.

The streets are lined with small shops, and large ornate gates cordon off residential sections. Women make injera, the large sourdough “pancake,” which is the national dish, over their charcoal burners, and tea glasses clink as the sugar is stirred in. Being populated by mostly Nuers, a very tall Nilotic people group, I was struck by how elegantly dressed the ladies were! It was normal to see gowns we would think of as evening wear or prom dresses worn for a stroll down the street — presenting an elegance in shocking contrast to the trash-filled gutters. Another thing that struck me as particularly strange was that the store manikins displaying elegant clothing were mostly white-skinned!

Visitors circulating on the day the library was dedicated.

Three-wheeled motorized Bajajs were the most common means of transportation in addition to a few bicycles. Music blared, and children played, some half-naked, on the roads. One child about two years old took a glance at me, screamed, then cried and ran away. (I saw no other white people while there.)

Because construction was ongoing and the dust from it everywhere, before Leah and I could even get to the books, we spent time cleaning the building. It was like trying to shovel in the midst of a snowstorm! We were totally blessed to have Sara Demissie, the head librarian from the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, come from Addis Ababa to assist us. The books had been packed with spreadsheets listing their contents, but now labels had to be applied. (We did most of this without a computer because the new computer Leah brought did not support the current library system used in Ethiopia, so it was abandoned.)

At night, I worked on the books. During the day, I would help by having the hired young men clean cement and paint off the windows, doors, floors, EVERYTHING! The unemployment rate is extremely high, so we had no trouble getting workers, although most were unskilled and had to learn on the job! Everything was a learning curve for all of us and not easy. But hearing the young men burst out into song in the midst of mixing mortar, fabricating electrical installation, and painting was memorable and soul-lifting. Often it was a call-and-response type of song.

For lunch, we had a young lady cook for all the workers… mostly a potato and spicy sauce dish served with injera, the national staple. To eat, one tears off a piece, then uses it to pick up the potato and sauce between the thumb and fingers. (I shamelessly opted for a spoon!) The young men would change out of their work clothes, gather at the community pump for fresh water, wash and put on clean clothes for lunch, served in a stick enclosure wrapped in a blue tarp. After lunch, they would change back into their work clothes for the afternoon work.

Between the house where we stayed and the library was a multipurpose tree-shaded area used for choir practice, complete with drumming, large Bible study groups on ubiquitous plastic chairs, small classes, and more. This was the site for slaughtering the goat for our dedication celebration (although sadly, it was NOT the goat who daily pooped on the concrete area around the building!). It also served as an impromptu kitchen set up for making the tea and washing the dishes since it was near the pump. One night I was not attentive enough to hear the splish splash and almost walked into a night bather! When we worked into the evening, we could hear the youth playing basketball on the newly built court and distant singing. The heavy rains on the metal roof of the house where we stayed drowned out the other noises, but sadly the gutter system was not set up for rain collection, which would have greatly alleviated the water shortage.

Electricity was intermittent, and water was scarce. I learned to take a shower with about two quarts of water. Food choices were extremely limited, which was such a disappointment after the rainforest fruits of 50 years earlier, not even bananas. And the best coffee, for which Ethiopia is known, was exported! But working with Sara, the librarian, was the highlight of my trip. We connected over our shared hardships — sweating when the fans went off, swatting mosquitoes by the dozens, trying to focus by headlamps on the tiny Dewey Decimal System numbers to add to the labels, etc. But the banner day arrived when we finished cataloging the last book — at 4:15 am! (Then, to catch a few hours of sleep with the barking dogs, roosters, donkey brays, and crying children!)

That morning the Bible school students carried the books down to the library, even though some construction was still happening! We unpacked and sorted into shelves with temporary numbered notes, trying to estimate how many books were in each section! Next, we pulled each numbered section off the shelves onto long tables and did the final sort. We made labels for the shelves, color-coded reference books, and I learned about more translations of the Bible than I’d ever known existed before!

Long term, we hope the library gets good use. Sara said it is probably among the top 10 libraries in all of Ethiopia. It is difficult for these students — speaking Nuer as their first language, Amharic as their second, and English as their third! The looks of awe on the faces of each person who came in, you would think they were entering a mint! They would touch the books reverently and say, “fantastic, wonderful, thank you, good work… .” Emblazoned in my mind is a picture of Leah showing the workers her Dad’s autobiography (“Christ’s Globe-Trotter,” published in 2005) and telling them about the projects he worked on over the years. Don gave each of the workers a pocket Bible, and seeing them sitting at the tables reading, was gratifying. There is a young man, Moses Hoth Lual, working on an updated translation of the Nuer Bible. He will most likely be able to do research at the library. The Bible school is named after the missionary who first translated the Bible into Nuer – Manpiny Theological College. And the E. O. Pollock Memorial Library has been named after my brother-in-law.

While washing the windows in time for the mid-afternoon dedication ceremony on Sunday, I listened to the chopping of the cleavers preparing the goat stew and watched the Bajajs arriving with women unloading bags of bread, cases of water, dishes, silverware, and teapots. Plastic chairs were set up under the roof overhang for all the dignitaries and Bible school students. (About twice the number that was originally estimated showed up — a few extras must have smelled the goat cooking!) Speeches were translated from Nuer to Amharic to English, as dignitaries from both East and West Gambela Synod, the Bible School President, and more talked from their hearts. I chuckled, watching the President of the West Gambela Synod take multiple selfies.

One older gentleman, dressed in a mustard-colored full-length wool coat, completed his outfit with a fly swisher that looked similar to a cheerleader’s pompom. When the doors were opened for the grand tour, he filed in with great pomp and began giving the joy cry, which caught on with others filing behind him. Amidst the “oohs and aahs,” my weariness lifted, and I could catch a glimpse of hope for people who have so little. As each one washed their hands in a basin with Leah pouring the water in preparation for their goat feast, I anticipated my return home, vowing to take less for granted, to count my many blessings, and to think twice before complaining over little annoyances. May my heart sing in gratitude for the lovely people who helped bring my brother-in-law’s vision to completion.


RELATED: Last Word – A Chair to Sit On Lived Philanthropy Letter from the President, Spring 2023

Lived Philanthropy

Teaching Softball and Saving Animals in Sierra Leone
An alumna gives back through service abroad
by Dr. Janelle Wills ’14

Let me set the scene: I can hear the crack of a bat, children laughing, and adults cheering. A humid breeze blows over the lush green turf. This could be a scene from any little league softball or baseball game. But it isn’t.

These kids have never heard of America’s favorite pastime. I’m halfway across the world in Sierra Leone, West Africa, on a soccer field converted into a makeshift baseball diamond. The kids, many of whom aren’t wearing shoes, are picking up a bat for the first time, learning that if you hit the ball hard enough, you don’t just stop at first base but keep rounding the corner to second. It is thrilling!

Self-discipline, perseverance, confidence, a will to win, and a sense of belonging are just a few things I gained through collegiate athletics at Wilson College. I was lucky enough to play both softball and soccer for the Phoenix. Talking with softball coach Brett Cline on a tour of the College and discovering that I could partake in Division III collegiate sports while pursuing my degree was a big reason I selected Wilson. Little did I know then that I would be sharing skills from my collegiate softball career with kids in West Africa 12 years later.

Softball was my sport growing up. While winter held us in its frigid grip, I would get an almost physical craving for spring and teaming up with my friends, playing catch, and having batting practice. As the land thawed, we would prepare for the day when the western Pennsylvania ground would be dry enough to hit the field for a scrimmage. Summers were a delicious blur of softball games and travel tournaments for my younger sister and me. There is no finer feeling than catching that fly ball in the outfield, making the tag-out on the basepath, or hitting that line drive hit to score the winning run. I was hooked.

Although sports took up most of my free time, I was committed to my education and the dream of attending veterinary school. Growing up on a farm, I understood the significance of the human-animal bond and the necessity for educating owners and keeping pets healthy. Wilson nurtured my love and knowledge of animals. Even though I was a biology major, I shadowed surgery at the Veterinary Education Center, volunteered at equestrian shows, and took equine anatomy classes to improve my chances of getting into vet school.

My senior research project involved collecting milk samples from and feeding dairy cows at a local farm. The project gave me the research experience I needed for applications but also introduced me to the veterinary medicine theory of “One Health.” The theory argues that humans, animals, and the world we live in are inextricably linked and that the collaborative effort of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally is needed to attain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment.

I was accepted into Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, St. Kitts, in 2014. I had never had a passport, and this was my first opportunity to travel and explore different cultures, all while studying on a tropical island.

After two semesters at Ross, I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Philadelphia. City living for this farm kid presented its own challenges. Figuring out how to navigate public transportation or how to avoid cars swerving into the bike lanes while commuting with a head full of parasitology lectures was its own culture shock. As a transfer student, I found it difficult to find a study group and support network to rely on outside my family. I craved that sense of belonging I had while at Wilson.

That summer, I was nominated to the Alumnae Association of Wilson College’s board of directors. It was a great opportunity to keep a strong connection to the College and its students and give back to the institution that pushed me to achieve my dream.

While on the board, I met Amanda Harrity ’07. We had mutual friends, and Amanda’s warm and humorous nature made her my ideal mentor. We soon realized we had more in common than we thought — we both lived in Philly and were Wilson softball alumnae. Amanda invited me to play with her recreation softball team in West Philadelphia. The team liked my speed on the basepaths, and I rekindled my love for softball in the “City of Brotherly Love” and haven’t looked back.

Eventually, my team joined the Philadelphia Adult League Softball (PALS) organization. Founded in 2012 by Kelly and Steve O’Connor, PALS organizes fun and competitive mixed-gender softball leagues and encourages community engagement and inclusion. They also offer group volunteer opportunities for players, an annual charity slowpitch softball tournament, free summer youth softball and baseball skills clinics, and international softball service trips through our Sierra Leone and Belize partnerships.

While getting to know Kelly and Steve, I realized their altruism extended beyond softball to pets and shelter animals. They volunteer with the local animal shelter and have adopted two pit bulls. We often shared stories about our pets and animal adventures with the softball field in the backdrop. In early 2022, Kelly and Steve invited me on their summer trip to Sierra Leone to help kids learn baseball and softball and to help animals in need.

Located on the coast of West Africa, Sierra Leone is a small, tropical country about the size of South Carolina with beautiful beaches, dense rainforests, and lush mountain ranges. Its eight million people — who collectively speak a total of 23 languages — are known for their friendliness and openness to visitors. The country is also famous for its religious tolerance and inter-religious cooperation. Endangered chimpanzees and pygmy hippopotamuses, along with countless other species, reside in the wilderness, and the country has vast natural resources, including diamonds, gold, iron ore, and bauxite.

Sierra Leone also has a longstanding and mixed connection to the United States. Several of its ports were used to forcibly send Sierra Leoneans and other West Africans — after being kidnapped and enslaved — to the Americas as part of the transatlantic slave trade. Starting in the late 1700s, the country also served as a location for formerly enslaved people to return to Africa and resettle — the capital was named Freetown because of this. After independence from Britain in 1961, Sierra Leone and its western peninsula’s pristine sand and warm waters became a thriving tourist destination in the 70s and 80s.

However, many in the United States are most familiar with Sierra Leone for its decade-long civil war led by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The conflict, which lasted from 1991 to 2002 and relied on the use of approximately 10,000 child soldiers, devastated the country and left an estimated 70,000 people dead, 1.6 million people displaced, and many others with serious long-term injuries. Since the war’s end, it has remained stable and conflict-free for 20 years. The country has worked hard to rebuild and has been relatively successful despite facing a tragic Ebola outbreak in 2014, which killed nearly 4,000 people.

While Sierra Leone has had two decades free from conflict, the impact of many years of colonialism, resource exploitation, war, and governance issues means that life is still difficult for many. The country ranks 182nd out of 189 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index, and nearly 60% of people experience multidimensional poverty (including living on less than $2 a day). Life expectancy has increased significantly but remains at 54.7 years, and the infant mortality rate is one of the highest in the world; more mothers die in childbirth than anywhere else. And fewer than half of individuals 15 and older can read. In addition, infrastructure challenges mean that less than a quarter of the country has access to electricity, and less than one percent of households have piped water in their homes. Limited basic sanitation services and poor road conditions also compound the challenges of daily life.

Sierra Leone is also very young, with 40% of the population under the age of 14 and an average age of just 19.5. While indicators have been improving since 2010, many of these young people remain especially vulnerable, with 66% of children experiencing multidimensional poverty indicating deprivation in at least one area, including shelter, health, water, nutrition, sanitation, education, or information. In 2018, Sierra Leone made school free to children in government-approved schools. Yet only 64% of children have completed primary school, and 22% completed upper secondary school. Poverty, gender discrimination, distance to schools, teenage pregnancy, early marriage, and a range of other factors contribute to children not finishing school. And young people struggle to find stable, sustainable ways to make a living.

These multifaceted challenges can make it difficult for children to play, have fun, and be kids. Many never get the chance to participate in the sporting activities we think of as an essential part of childhood. However, the positive impact that sports can have on young people, particularly vulnerable young people, is well known and demonstrated in research — especially when sports are introduced in a positive, inclusive way with a focus on participants’ well-being. The lack of equipment was one barrier to participation that we could do something about.

Sports programs, another thing we could help with, can promote physical as well as mental and emotional health. They can build confidence, improve teamwork and social skills, increase school and community participation, integrate or reintegrate marginalized groups, and enhance child protection. They can also be essential drivers of gender equality for girls and young women. In addition, a recent report by UNICEF found that sports increase “access to, and participation in, initiatives and services for children — including the most marginalized children. By so doing, sports promote equitable outcomes in learning, skills development, inclusion, safety, and empowerment.” Sports’ broad appeal and popularity can also help include the most marginalized or hard-to-reach groups.

Eighteen of my league teammates and I spent countless weeks accumulating sports equipment and veterinary medical supplies and fundraising leading up to our trip to Sierra Leone. The bake sales, raffles, and a dog wash (thanks, VMT club, for the idea!) added up to a total of 37 bags of donations (25 bags of softball and baseball gear, two bags of cricket equipment, and 10 bags of veterinary supplies) and a fundraising total of $29,200.

We worked with several Western Area Football Association soccer teams in Sierra Leone. We organized a free four-day USA Quickball Softball and Baseball Skills Camp for 170 young people 14 and under to build new skills and foster learning in a supportive, positive, and inclusive environment. USA Quickball is particularly well-suited for this program because it is designed to teach fundamentals in a welcoming, fun, and low-pressure way with an emphasis on teamwork and inclusion, and it is ideal for new players of all ages. We used this model with earlier service trips to Belize City and our Youth Softball and Baseball Skills Camp at Mill Creek in West Philadelphia and have witnessed its benefit firsthand.

Each day, the approximately 170 young people were divided into groups, participated in the day’s drills and games, and were given a full lunch and beverage. At the end of each day’s clinics, the campers got to hear from different community leaders. At the end of the fourth day, all of the campers received a certificate, a new schoolbag, a composition book, two pencils, a t-shirt, and a pair of socks. Each of the five participating soccer clubs got a complete softball equipment set, including at least 11 gloves, three bats, a dozen balls, and four batting helmets to start the first youth softball program in the country. We hope to provide them with ongoing support.

While all of the participants have played soccer, this was the first experience with softball or baseball for most of them. There have been some earlier local efforts to expand access to the sport in the country, but the cost and availability of equipment have been significant barriers. However, some youth soccer teams are interested in growing the sport in-country and setting up a youth league. Our complete-kit donations support this initiative. As most participants had limited exposure to softball and baseball, learning a new sport provided a level playing field and a fun and accessible experience for all.

Before the camp, we trained 22 local soccer coaches and players in facilitating USA Quickball so that they could both run the camp with us and continue to lead training sessions after we left. We were also thrilled to be working with the University of Sierra Leone to support a softball pro- gram for their university students. To familiarize themselves with the sport, interested university students could attend the coaches’ training and volunteer as a part of our four-day camp. We donated equipment to enable them to kick off their program. On one of our final days, we hosted friendly adult softball games for the adult coaches to experience playing the game themselves. This project was an initial pilot program for what we plan will be a sustainable youth sports development initiative involving a range of partners to support young people in Sierra Leone through the platform of softball and baseball.

While in Sierra Leone, we also supported three animal welfare organizations thanks to the incredible donations we’d gotten back home. We brought 10 bags of veterinary supplies, medications, and equipment totaling 470 pounds, as well as a cooler of 150 rabies vaccines, other medications, and tests that require cold storage.

When we arrived in Sierra Leone, we were honored to have Stephen Musa, founder and CEO/Executive Director of Livelihoods Enhancement for Agricultural Development Sierra Leone (LEAD-SL), speak to us during a dinner in Freetown. Musa spoke about his time in the non-profit sector, working with vulnerable communities through various agricultural initiatives, and his organization’s incredibly important work to address food insecurity and support sustainable livelihoods. Musa was previously a program officer with Heifer International Sierra Leone. He formed LEAD-SL in 2013 to sustain Heifer’s programs in Kailahun District (in eastern Sierra Leone on the border of Guinea and Liberia) after Heifer phased out of the country. His organization works with community stakeholders — particularly women, youth, and people with disabilities — on integrated crop and livestock management to improve nutrition and increase sources of income. They also train community animal health workers to provide veterinary services such as vaccinations in coordination with the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock Department.

We contributed veterinary supplies to LEAD-SL, including antibiotics, Ivermectin, dewormer, syringes, needles, salt licks, ear tag applicators and ear tags, castrators and bands, weight tape, hoof trimmers, and so much more. They will be used for the livestock and small ruminants, including goats, sheep, and pigs, in their programs. We also donated $1,000 to support their work.

While there, we also volunteered with and contributed to the Sierra Leone Animal Welfare Society (SLAWS) in Freetown. SLAWS was founded 34 years ago by Dr. Gudush Jalloh, one of the few practicing veterinarians in the country. They conduct a range of initiatives for companion and free-roaming dogs, including spaying and neutering, vaccinating, feeding, community outreach, humane education, and more. However, the volume of animals in need combined with a shoestring budget and lack of access to basic supplies, medications, and equipment means that SLAWS faces enormous challenges. We donated several bags of much-needed items, including antibiotics, flea and tick preventatives, pain medication, syringes, vaccines, Ivermectin, splints, parvo tests, gauze, gloves, and so much more, as well as $1,000.

We spent two afternoons with Dr. Jalloh and his team at SLAWS. We got a tour of the SLAWS facility (and met some very adorable pups), talked with Dr. Jalloh about his work and the challenges he faces, and I conducted bandage and splint training for Dr. Jalloh and his staff.

The third animal welfare organization we supported was Compassionate Paws International! CPI works to prevent and alleviate the suffering of street animals in resource-limited environments. They focus on improving the lives of free-roaming dogs in Freetown through spaying and neutering, vaccinating, emergency medical interventions, veterinary care, training of community health workers, animal welfare education, research, and more. We provided several bags of supplies and medications and $500. They used our donations to support a sterilization event in October at which they spayed and neutered a significant number of dogs!

My trip to Sierra Leone allowed me to implement the One Health theory and witness how human, animal, and environmental health are intertwined. It also bolstered my gratitude for what I have — I was so exceptionally lucky to attend Wilson College, veterinary school, and later join PALS. Playing with PALS has let me build strong relationships with people and the community. Traveling internationally through this service trip has allowed me to extend all the gifts I have acquired through softball and my education. By delivering essential supplies to the veterinary organizations and animals of Sierra Leone, I also hope to have helped improve animal and human health and welfare abroad with my PALS teammates.

This trip embodied the essence of philanthropy — giving time, talent, and treasure to those in need. It was my way of giving back and demonstrating my ongoing appreciation for all that Wilson and this life have provided me. I received an exceptional education that helped me excel in my career, grow as a person, develop self-confidence, and have a supportive network of academics and alumni. Without my experiences at Wilson, I would never have embraced the opportunity to share my talents and treasures with the people and animals of Sierra Leone.

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Letter from the President, Spring 2023

As I write you, Wilson is bustling with students beginning their first day of classes for the spring 2023 semester. Despite the winter chill, their greetings and smiles tell you how excited they are to be back together after a long winter break. I, too, am thrilled to have their smiling faces on campus as they engage with faculty and the curriculum and learn to live in community with one another.

Although Wilson has made great strides over this past year and is positioning herself to rise boldly from the difficulties of the past few years, 2023 will likely prove to be another challenging year for higher education. In just the first 23 days of this year, there has already been an announced college closure and a college merger. The funding provided by the federal government during the pandemic has dried up, and institutions are still grappling with a stubborn economy, a challenging social and political environment, and declining demographics.

Wilson is not immune to these pressures, but fortunately, we have been working on strategies to adapt to our ever-changing environment. In November, we launched Wilson College Online, expanding upon our previous online education efforts to provide a more robust suite of offerings at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These programs are primarily targeted at adult students who seek a rigorous, personalized education with the flexibility necessary for those with careers, family obligations, and other commitments that make learning in person particularly challenging.

Additionally, we seek ways to ensure that all students, regardless of modality, program, or demographic category, Encouragingly, we increased our traditional undergraduate students’ first-year to second-year retention rate by 4% last year.

Despite all the progress we are seeing in enacting our strategic plan, Future Wilson: The Phoenix Rises, we know that the next few years will be particularly challenging from a fiscal standpoint. This year is our third year in a row of declined enrollment. While signs are positive that we may end this trend and increase enrollment next year, the budgetary effects of these down years will live with us for the next four or five years. Thus, we are engaged in a “not-so-silent” phase of a philanthropic campaign aimed at ensuring that Wilson manages these challenging years as we seek to thrive into the future. I hope you will join us in June at Reunion as we formally launch this campaign. Until then, I urge each of you to consider making the most transformational gift you can make to Wilson. She needs your support now more than ever before.

When I am asked why I have such confidence in Wilson’s future, despite all the headwinds, it is because of our people and their care for others. From our students to our faculty, from our staff to alumnae and alumni, Wilson women and men are incredibly generous in their service to others. This issue will illuminate just a few of the stories of those who lend their time, talent, and treasure to ensure that others’ lives are transformed.

You will learn of students and faculty who traveled to the Dominican Republic to care for Haitian sugar plantation workers. Alumna Carolyn Pollock ’70 shares her experience building a library for a Bible school in Ethiopia. Alumna Janelle Wills ’14 details a service trip she took to Sierra Leone to teach softball to kids while helping the only practicing veterinarian in the country look after injured animals. You will learn of the College’s recent designation as a hunger-free campus as we use Sarah’s Cupboard to ensure that our students’ primary needs are met. Through these and other stories, you will see firsthand that service to others has been a part of Wilson’s impact for 154 years. Because of deeply held shared values and mission, I am confident this commitment will continue well into the future.
Wesley R. Fugate

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