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.