SEMO student group wants to free the slaves

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The local chapter of Free the Slaves will hold a fundraiser Thursday

The Southeast Missouri State University chapter of the Free the Slaves organization is reaching beyond the university and into the community to raise awareness about the prevalence of human slavery.

While the national Free the Slaves organization concentrates on worldwide slavery, the Southeast chapter has focused its efforts on child slaves in Ghana, West Africa. The group works closely with the Challenging Heights organization, a partner of Free the Slaves that promotes children's rights and education.

In 2012, the organization brought Challenging Heights founder James Kofi Annan to campus to speak about his experiences. An escaped former child slave, Annan now offers refuge and an education for Ghana's child slaves.

Ally Melvin, president of the Southeast chapter of Free the Slaves, said the group allied with this organization because child slavery remains prevalent in West Africa.

"The children are brought to work at Lake Volta, this large man-made lake," said Melvin. "They have a huge fishing industry there and need the kids to work, untangling the underwater nets."

Once rescued from the lake, the children are brought to what Melvin says is a type of boarding school. However, some of the children are brought first to a shelter that allows them to be integrated back into society. According to Melvin, several of the children have been in slavery for so long that they don't know "how to act."

"The very first group of kids that got there actually beat each other almost to death," said Melvin. "It's sad, but they fought so hard because they thought they were brought there to be resold."

In the summer of 2012, Melvin had the opportunity to spend six weeks in Ghana. While there, she had the chance to see firsthand the difference her group's contributions made.

"When I went to Africa I got to see the lake and the shelter," said Melvin. "I went with three other people in the group and we got to bring different school supplies for the kids."

For group member Joe Schick, seeing the direct effect made by the group's efforts is a key motivator. While Joe did not visit Africa last summer, he says he still feels closely connected to the school and the children.

"No, I haven't actually met the kids," said Schick. "But seeing their smiles in photos and getting their pictures drawn by markers I helped send over there makes it all so much more personal."

Schick said he always reminds people that their organization isn't like the "dollar a day" television commercials where donations go to an unknown destination. The organization sends all of its money to Challenging Heights.

Schick said the monetary donations make the biggest difference in their efforts to help the children in Ghana.

"Of course, we're always grateful for any donations," said Schick. "The monetary donations really do go farther though, because the dollar is worth a lot more in Africa than it is here."

Melvin said the group is also in constant need of donated school supplies. Because the group's main goal is to contribute to the children's education, Melvin said all supplies make a difference.

"It's great to donate things like clothes, sure, but the kids don't really care what they wear," said Melvin. "But you should see how excited they get over things like pencils."

To continue sending supplies, and group members, to Ghana, the group relies primarily on fundraising events. In 2012, the group's most successful event was "Bowling for Freedom." All members of the community were invited to play a game of bowling at a discounted price, purchase bracelets from Ghana, and learn more about Free the Slaves.

"Last year, we managed to raise enough money to pay for visas for all four people going to Ghana," said Melvin.

Because of the success of the event, the group will hold another bowling event this year on Thursday at West Park Lanes. According to Schick, they expect to raise even more money than last year.

"We got our name out more this year and promoted the event more online," said Schick. "We want people to see that supporting events like this really can make a difference."

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