In the UM News Service August 16 story “United Methodists care for girls stranded after Ebola” Sierra Leone Conference Communications Director Phileas Jusu writes about the lingering effects of the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa among surviving children at a boarding school in Moyambe, Sierra Leone. Some students at the June Hartranft Memorial Primary School for Girls face an uncertain future as authorities struggle to locate their parents nine months after Ebola ended in the country. Just this week, the school learned that the parents of two sisters had died of Ebola.
The girls were among nine students, ranging in age from 10 to 15, who initially lost contact with their parents at the peak of the outbreak in their hometown of Kailahun, the first district affected by Ebola in May 2014. More than 11,000 people died in the Ebola outbreak, the majority of them in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, according to the World Health Organization.
At the end of that school year, Kailahun was recording the highest number of Ebola cases and deaths, according to the Rev. Jane Lahai, a former student and now head teacher at June Hartranft, a prized United Methodist primary school for girls ages 6-12.
Jusu’s story details the loving care Lahai and the school are providing to the girls and the challenges they face in reaching their parents. The situation is becoming dire, and Lahai is making arrangements for some of the girls, who are about to graduate, to stay in her home. She has been coping with the uncertain future “through the grace of God.”
“When I’m really pushed to the wall, I look up to First United Methodist Church in (Ephrata) Pennsylvania, who have been of tremendous support to the school over the years,” Lahai said. First UMC Ephrata, mentioned briefly in Jusu’s story, supplements boarding costs and supports the school’s feeding program, providing lunches for students and staff.
June Hartranft (1916-1965) was a missionary and a member of First UMC when it was an Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) congregation. She served as headmistress of the Hartford Secondary School in Moyamba. The primary school, a long-held dream of hers, was established in her memory in 1968, with support from the church.
A decade-long civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s left the nation destitute. When rebels invaded Moyamba and looted the school in 1995, staff grabbed students, hid in the bushes and ultimately fled to Freetown, the capital city, for safety. Headmistress Jane Lahai and other dedicated staff turned a dilapidated garage into a crude schoolhouse, restoring hope and opportunity in the face of war’s devastation. But the rebels invaded Freetown and attacked the school’s new location in 1996, forcing the staff to return to Moyamba to reclaim and rebuild the school facility there.
By then many of the students’ parents and family members had been killed and their homes destroyed by the rebels, and insufferable poverty had crippled the community. Yet, they rebuilt the school in the aftermath of the civil war.
The Rev. Walter Carter, senior pastor of First UMC Ephrata, recalls, “Jane Lahai, as a delegate to General Conference in 2008, reached out to us, and we had an opportunity to pick up our support again of the June Hartranft School. We have since been able to set up ongoing support for the feeding program, as well as financing some projects and relief programs.”
The church sent eight members to Moyamba to visit the school in 2012 and later sent relief monies for food and medical supplies during the Ebola outbreak.
The congregation became gravely concerned when Ebola struck the area, Carter said in an interview. “The biggest challenge was food. We knew we could help because we knew how to get monies to Jane Lahai in Moyambe quickly without going through the usual channels.”
Carter made a Sunday morning appeal, and the congregation responded with sufficient funds for three months of food and medicines. “It was a wonderful response from our church. We saw photos of Jane’s van, which she named “Precious,” loaded up with huge sacks of rice. She would deliver food not just to the school but to family members living in remote, impoverished areas. She’s amazing.”
Read Jusu’s UMNS story and additional background information about the June Hartranft Memorial Primary School for Girls, which you can support with donations through the Advance #3021929. You can find out more about First UMC Ephrata’s support for this mission on their website.