By John Van Winkle, U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
/ Published April 09, 2010
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
The generosity of two cadets sparked an outporing of aid that helped feed thousands, provide medical treatment to hundreds and give toys to impoverished children in western Africa.
Cadet 1st Class Anthony Christian of Cadet Squadron 35 and Cadet 2nd Class Joel Corabi of Cadet Squadron 8 spent their winter holidays in the African nation of Ghana, demonstrating Service Before Self as their two-person effort to help a few people blossomed into an outporing of generosity beyond any of their original plans.
Their story starts last summer, when the devoutly religious duo had determined that they would spend their next winter break helping people in Africa. But choosing exactly where on the continent to go was the hard part.
"There was no special formula or decision-making process," said Cadet Christian, who said the duo prayed to find an indication of where to go, and their answer was "Ghana."
"We were totally unsure why that would be, but just decided that if that's where we were supposed to go, than that is where we should go. We really didn't know what we were going to do there, but since we had both been to Africa before we knew that there would be no shortage of people to bless," said Cadet Corabi.
Both had travelled to a few countries in Africa before, but neither had actually travelled to Ghana. Their research showed that there was definitely need, but they got to see that need up-close and personal over the holidays.
The Republic of Ghana is a developing country located on West Africa's Gulf of Guinea, just north of the Equator. Agriculture is the main portion of the nation's economy, but mining and a 2007 oil discovery in the Gulf of Guinea have boosted Ghanain economic development, according to the U.S. State Department.
While Ghana is not the poorest country in Africa, it still has many people in need. Ghana remains heavily dependent on international financial and technical assistance, and the nation's debt sits at 67.5 percent of its gross domestic product, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. The nation's GDP in 2008 was about $16 billion.
Roughly the size of Oregon, this African nation has an 11 percent unemployment rate and 28.5 percent of its population live below the poverty line. Literacy rates --measured as the members of the population over age 15 who can both read and right - stand at 66.4 percent, according to the CIA.
Now that the cadets had determined a location for their charitable efforts, they
tried to work with several charitable organizations to gain assistance in their efforts. They were turned down each time, but they didn't let that stop them.
"We were already fairly committed with plane tickets regardless, so organization or not, we were going," Cadet Corabi said. "We had not made any announcements of this trip to any organizations requesting donations at this point and so we really didn't have anything to bring over to anyone besides what little we could do from our own pocket.'
It was here that everything started happening.
"About a week out, a friend of ours just randomly approached us saying 'I know that you are not looking for monetary donations, but I really feel like God is telling me to do this.' He then handed us an envelope containing $1,000."
Cadet Corabi's roommate suggested that the Ghana-bound cadets let their squadrons know their plans to head to Ghana over the winter break, and if anyone wanted to donate a $1.50 soccer ball from Walmart, that they would leave boxes outside their rooms.
"Several cadets (including a coast guard exchange student) in our squadrons really jumped on this," Cadet Corabi said. "Within a couple of days both of us had a mountain of toys on our bedroom floors. In addition, both of us also received more cash donations from random people in the squadron including an anonymous freshman who donated his whole month's pay towards this trip. With this mountain of toys growing, we had no idea how on earth we were going to get all this stuff over there since there was far too much to carry without bringing extra bags which cost a ton. "
This need was quickly met through a friend that came up to Cadets Corabi and Christian, hearning that they had a ton of toys to ship, and offered to pay all the extra costs for the bags. Now with a ton of toys and around 1,400 dollars in donations, they hopped a plane and went to Ghana. They had virtually no contacts in Ghana, until right before their departure, when a local exchange student from Belize gave them a contact at a Ghanaian orphanage.
But they key contact came on the flight into the nation's coastline capitol of Accra.
"As we were debarking the aircraft a lady who needed help with her bags noticed us because we had a bible verse on the back of our shirts and so thought she would ask us because we would be nice. After helping her with her bags, we chatted with her as we walked towards the terminal and she gave us her contact information if we ever needed it while we were there," said Cadet Corabi. "We parted ways thinking that we would never see her again."
They left the airport and headed to the orphanage. As it turned out the orphanage was not a place the cadets were going to make a difference. Ghana's population of 24 million people is 68.8 percent Christian, and thus the upcoming Christmas holiday has spawned truckloads of donations to the orphanages. Going out on a limb, the cadets contacted their fellow airline passenger, who proved to the be the right place at the right time.
They spoke, then took a six-hour bus ride north to Kumasi to meet her, and her father.
"The lady's father was the pastor of a huge church right around the corner and even by American standards was living very well," Cadet Corabi said. "He invited us in, and even without hearing what we came for opened his house for however long we wanted to stay and provided every meal for us while we were there. The next day, he invited several of his pastor friends to come and visit and we shared our story with them. Immediately they all got excited and several of them offered to take us around wherever we wanted to go; a very helpful thing when you are in a different country."
Transportation was arranged, and the cadets proceeded to travel to the villages around Kumasi.
"The orphanages are a focal point for donations, but often times the villages are forgotten about and neglected when it comes to poverty support," Cadet Corabi said. "The poverty we saw in these villages was incredible. Every day we met women who were widows or their husbands were alcoholics and had 10 children, some who were blind or had some debilitating illness and had no way to provide for them except by cleaning the streets and begging the village king for something to feed her kids. Others had cancer. Many were homeless. Children had nothing and many were malnourished and sick," said Cadet Corabi. "It was eye-opening. "
In the villages, they sought out the poorest of the poor to help, and passed out hundreds of toys and clothing items to the kids, said Corabi. "It seemed like there was a never ending line of them all. "
With the adults, they used the money they had gathered to go out and buy chickens.
"In Ghana chickens go for cheap so with the little money by American standards that we came with, we were able to pass out hundreds of chickens to needy families," said Cadet Corabi. "If there is any way to attract a crowd in Africa, it is by having a white man hold up a free chicken. People came out of everywhere."
But through their faith and the generosity of many people at the Academy, they were able to help many.
However, the story does not just stop at passing out chickens and toys. The pastor they were staying with saw the cadets' drive and work. He enlisted the cadets' aid and organized a program to feed the poor via his church within a few days. They fed more than 2,000 people and also provided medical care to 500 Ghanaians.
But the cadets weren't done yet.
"We also made some connections with the Juvenile Social Welfare center where they had some boys staying in some fairly bad conditions," said Cadet Corabi. "They for the most part lived in this concrete block where they had to urinate in the corner and had virtually nothing to eat, nor wear, nor anything to protect themselves from the malaria carrying mosquitoes."
"We pooled the money we had left, which ended up being more than enough and were able to by them food, clothes, toiletries, mattresses and other basic supplies," he added. "It was really amazing to watch the change in these three boys lives. You could tell from the bottom of their hearts that they got it. It was definitely the most impactful part of the trip."
The cadets went out to purchase rice for the orphans, and rice is expensive by Ghanaian standards, said Cadet Corabi. "The rice shop owner had been so excited to hear what we were doing that he happily doubled our donation for free. The center said that this was the biggest donation that they had ever received. "
But all vacations must end, and the time the cadets had to help people in Africa ended. After some sad tears, the duo left Ghana to return to the Academy to start their spring semester. And slowly, when they would exchange stories of 'what I did over the holidays' with other cadets, the Ghana story comes out.
"Most people asked how our trip was because they were curious, not because they really wanted to know everything. However, for the ones that did want to know everything, we would sit down and talk for a long time," said Cadet Christian. When invited to discuss it, he placed all the credit for the trip on his faith. But along the way, he and Cadet Corabi are demonstrating the practice of Service Before Self in their deeds and humility.