Twenty Years in Sierra Leone

02/05/15

Jason Caldwell reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small memento from one of his first trips to Sierra Leone—a shell from an AK-47. Seventeen years later, he is bringing this remnant of his journey back to the country it came from, as a reminder of God's protection and plan.

God's plan back then was very different from Jason's. It started in 1995, when Sierra Leone was in the throes of a horrific 11-year civil war. A member of Jason's church named Chris Clark had recently been to Sierra Leone and was bugging Jason to go back with him.

Chris had seen the devastating effects of war on the children in Sierra Leone and was heartbroken that no one was in-country caring for them. Sure, there were relief organizations providing food and shelter. But no one was committed to giving these refugee children the long-term care they needed to grow up without parents in a war-torn country. Chris wanted to change that.



Jason with a child at COTN's Marjay Town school, nearly two decades after he helped begin COTN's ministry in Sierra Leone.

Jason didn't even consider it. "I told God, 'God—I will never go there,'" he recalls. But Chris was persistent, and Jason a jobless college grad, so eventually he gave in and got on a plane to Sierra Leone.

He spent the next two weeks in refugee camps and orphanages, hanging out on the street with children who had no place else to go, making connections and assessing immediate needs. And over the next two years, Jason helped Chris and a handful of dedicated Sierra Leoneans build Children of the Nations from the ground up.

But Jason's involvement in Sierra Leone was cut short. On a 1997 trip, he was evacuated shortly after a coup destabilized Freetown. A few days before he got out, he moved from his little room by COTN's warehouse to a safer home.

Jason heard gunshots that night and woke up to an eerily quiet city. He got up and walked through the empty streets to the room he had slept in the night before. He found his door pelleted with bullet holes and empty shells lying all over and around his bed. Floored by God's timing and protection, he picked up a shell to take home with him.

It was two years after he left, in 1999, that COTN's first Children's Home opened its doors and took in 98 orphaned and refugee children. But Jason didn't get to meet those children—until last spring.



Children of the Nations housed children in an orphanage in Marjay Town, on the outskirts of Freetown, before moving to rural Banta, where we serve today. 

Last May, 17 years after he was evacuated, Jason returned to Sierra Leone with a Venture Team and saw something completely different from what he left.

In those 17 years, COTN had moved from Freetown to rural Banta—a place Jason never would have risked visiting during the war. Most of the original 98 children made the move with COTN, and now live in the beautiful Children's Homes just down the road from COTN's school, medical clinic, and offices. More have entered the homes since the move, and still others receive education and care through COTN's three Village Partnership Programs—about 600 children in all.



     COTN now cares for hundreds of children at the Children's Homes in rural Banta and in the surrounding villages.

Jason was blown away as he saw how many children COTN had grown to serve. "I never would have imagined the ministry would be so big," he says. "Or that it would have spread to five different countries."

As he heard and saw stories of great adversity and yet great accomplishment—COTN­–Sierra Leone's first college graduate, a village dedicated to witchcraft building its first church, a primary school under construction in one of the most remote villages in the region—Jason was struck with the way God used him so many years ago to impact these children today. "Many of these children weren't even born when I was first there," Jason says. "Who knew that the work I was doing then would somehow connect to them?"

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of COTN’s ministry, which began when Jason, Chris, and many other people like you responded to the war-orphan crisis in Sierra Leone.

 

Today, Sierra Leone faces a new crisis. Ebola has left more than 8,000 children orphaned, many of whom have been rejected by their families for fear of the disease. Responding to this need is written into the very DNA of who we are as an organization. Will you join with us to meet this need?