Long Islanders travel to children’s village in Africa
Twenty people from Shelter Rock Church—which has three locations across Nassau County—traveled to Ghana in West Africa this summer. For a week, they spent their mornings helping Ghanaian contractors to build a permanent cinder block home for a woman in the Teacher Mante community whose husband died last year. The widow and her seven children had been sleeping on the dirt floor of their one-room mud and stick house.
During the afternoon, the group led a Vacation Bible School in the nearby Village of Hope, bonding with 44 children through games, crafts and other activities.
“By the end of the week, a lot of the children started to make connections with our team,” said trip-goer Jerry O’Sullivan, lead pastor at Shelter Rock’s Syosset campus. “Some of the children opened up about challenges in their past—of having their parents die and not having people looking out for them.”
Thanks to Project Nyame Nsa (PNN), the village has housed orphaned children since July 2016. The Christian nonprofit organization—whose name means “God’s helping hands” in Twi, a popular dialect in Ghana—was founded by Manhasset native Devon Leondis, 25, almost a decade ago.
“The Village of Hope is not a typical orphanage. I don’t even like using that word,” Leondis said. “It’s really a children’s village…Children belong in families, not in institutions.”
Each apartment in the village includes one mother and eight or nine foster siblings. Leondis hopes that PNN will enable the children to become future leaders and changemakers.
She first envisioned building homes for African orphans as a little girl.
“It was a dream that God put in my heart,” she said.
Instead of accepting gifts for her 16th birthday, Leondis asked guests for donations. She raised enough money to build three fresh water wells. Six months later, she and her father flew to Ghana to see the people whose lives she’d affected.
Leondis met individuals from rural villages outside Accra, the capital city, and heard stories of daily struggles, of parents dying, of orphaned children not going to school.
“Growing up in Manhasset, I wasn’t always so exposed to what is really going on in the world,” she said. “One of the most beautiful things about stepping out of your comfort zone is…that you’ll be challenged to think about the reality of other people’s everyday lives.”
After returning to the U.S., she filed the paperwork to start PNN and began raising money to build the Village of Hope.
One of the first children who joined the community had been abandoned at birth. A victim of child labor, he’d never received an education. He was a victim of child labor, Leondis said, who lacked a sense of belonging or that he mattered.
But during a church service months later, she recounted, the boy “accepted Jesus as his savior.”
“From that point on, we saw a radical transformation in his heart,” she said. “He now feels so loved and has dreams for his generation in Ghana. He wants to do exactly what we’re doing at Project Nyame Nsa in his own country and part of breaking the orphan cycle.”
In addition to attending a recently opened Montessori school, the village’s children frequently pray and often participate in other biblical activities. Leondis stressed, however, that PNN is not seeking to proselytize.
“We don’t try to convert any of the kids. They totally have free will to accept it or not, but from what we’ve seen, almost all the children coming in are accepting this in their own time when they feel ready,” she said. “But we’ve had children come in from different faiths, and we wouldn’t exclude anyone.”
O’Sullivan, who was Leondis’s youth pastor, highlighted the Christian value of caring for the vulnerable. He believes that the children’s “vibrant” relationship with God has given them optimism and inner strength. (By comparison, behavioral science expert Gleb Tsipursky wrote in Psychology Today that “religion is only one among many ways of developing a personal sense of life meaning and greater sense of personal agency.”)
O’Sullivan noted that the children still retain their language and customs.
“They are thriving because of the Ghanian culture that’s infused in Project Nyame Nsa. For example, the older boys love to play the drums to the point where they lead drums for the church services,” he said. “I don’t want these kids to think, ‘If you live in America, you’re blessed; if you live here, you’re not.’”
Angelle Kwemo, who founded an initiative that seeks to empower young Africans, believes that “foreign assistance has, at times, developed a culture of dependency in Africa,” she wrote in an article for The Brookings Institution.
“You don’t need American volunteers to run this project,” Leondis said. “It’s fully sustainable with all local leadership.”
But to provide “a little extra love and encouragement,” O’Sullivan said, the 20-person group stayed in the Village of Hope from July 26 to Aug. 3.
Rich Cutler, who owns Mim’s Restaurant in Roslyn Heights, described the trip as “transformational” because of the relationships that he, his wife and their 14-year-old daughter forged. It’d been his daughter’s idea to go.
Cutler recalled an especially meaningful moment.
“The children were individually praying for us, out loud…in their own words. They were praying for the people on our team,” he said. “All of us were crying at the end.”
Next July, PNN plans to open a village in Zambia; Leondis aims to help raise children across the entire African continent, “if not the world,” she added. Building a children’s village in every nation of the world would be impossible, she admitted, but her goal is to encourage others to shift the paradigm of orphan care.
Leondis advised children with aspirations like hers to remember that “big dreams don’t happen overnight.”
Similarly, O’Sullivan called on young people in particular to assist individuals of different backgrounds.
“When we serve each other,” he said, “it helps break down some of the barriers and walls that we tend to erect.”