“You Are Beautiful”
words by: Sabrina Schlabach
Imagine your child being called a devil, witch, or demon-possessed. Why? Only because that child was born with a disability. Now you and your child are feared and treated as outcasts. Your neighbors are afraid that you are contagious and will spread disease or cause them to have a child with disabilities. Where does that leave you? What hope could you possibly have? Who will reach out to love you and your child?
Heleen Yoder has worked in Sierra Leone, Africa, primarily in Freetown, since 2003 as a trained mental health counselor. She was drawn to this country where children lived in situations where psychosocial care was unavailable for many, largely due to a devastating decade-long civil war that ended in 2002. Heleen’s heart went out to the people of Sierra Leone, and she knew that she also had an opportunity to encourage the Christian minority in the country. By 2017, Heleen and her husband, Jon—a medical doctor—were working in the small city of Mattru Jong, about five hours south of Freetown. While working there, a family brought their son in for help, as he couldn’t speak. Jon told Heleen about the boy, and she agreed to see what she could do to help him. As she worked with this child and his family, she realized that he had a disability and needed specialized help. After helping the boy, word began to spread in the community, and more and more families began bringing in their children with disabilities. However, the hospital wasn’t equipped to handle these new patients effectively, so Jon and Heleen took action: they started an independent organization dedicated to helping children with special needs in Sierra Leone. Not knowing exactly where to start, Jon and Heleen began by throwing a Christmas party for the children and their families. “Christmas in Sierra Leone is a big deal regardless of your religion,” Heleen shared, “and we decided to host a Christmas party as a fun way to bless the children we had been helping.”
One of the people Heleen invited to the Christmas party was Sylvanus French. Sylvanus had previously worked with Heleen, and he recently moved back to his hometown of Mattru Jong from Freetown. In Freetown, Sylvanus served in juvenile detention centers to help children with mental health disorders and those suffering from addictions. Sylvanus shared with the Yoders that he had returned home to get his certification to teach. The Yoders shared with Sylvanus their vision for the people of Mattru Jong: they hoped to start an organization to care for children with special needs and their families. Heleen then invited Sylvanus to join them in their organization. Heleen said, “We felt that Sylvanus’ love and compassion for children along with his leadership skills would be a perfect fit as the program manager.” Sylvanus was all in and replied with a resounding yes: “I loved the idea!”
By 2019, after two years of work and planning, Nyandengoh! was born. Nyandengoh! (pronounced: nee-an-den-go) is the Mende word for ‘he/she/it is beautiful.’ Their ministry is based on Luke 14:12-13:
“Then He [Jesus] also said to him who had invited Him, ‘When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.’”
The heart of Nyandengoh! is to show that children with disabilities are respected as image-bearers of God and, together with their families, that they are accepted and included in their communities. These beautiful children have value and are loved by God. This is hope. Valuing God’s children and fighting the stigma of having a disability, while also sharing the Word of God, is the inspiration that the people of Sierra Leone need.
The work that Nyandengoh! provides is vital to the community. Because children with disabilities are feared and seen as outcasts, they are treated badly, and—along with their families—are often ostracized. Many teachers think that school-aged children with disabilities are difficult and unteachable, and they are frequently bullied and abused by their classmates. In addition, the children who are too young for school are often left unattended at home by parents who are away at their jobs. This is dangerous, especially for young girls, because if they wander away from home, the opportunities for others to abuse and take advantage of them increases.
Desiring the best for their children, many families seek treatments by traditional folk healers in hopes of a “magic cure” that will heal their children and “return them to normal.” “Unfortunately, they are just money makers who often cause illness, abuse, and even some fatalities,” Heleen shared. “These healers are also contributing to the spread of negative stereotypes of children with disabilities.”
People, by nature, are watchers. Every time that Nyandengoh! staff interact with these children and show that they love them for who they are, people begin to realize that the old superstitions and the folk healers’ stereotypes of children with disabilities are misguided. Sylvanus shared a story of a woman whose son Matthew has a condition that causes him to drool. As the woman attempted to sell food at the market to make money and provide for her family, people turned away from her, afraid to buy her food. Customers feared that food from her stand was contaminated or unclean to eat because she had a son with a disability. The woman and her son moved to a community where Nyandengoh! was present; in this community, the staff taught the people that there was no reason to fear people with disabilities. As a result of moving to this more welcoming community, her market stand was successful, and Matthew was able to attend school and make new friends who accepted him.
Nyandengoh! has worked to build trust with the communities they serve by providing medicine, counseling, and now a school and daycare. Not only do they reach the locals, but they also go out to as many villages as time and resources allow, building relationships and helping with medicine and exercises. Three times a year, a therapy team from Freetown comes out to prescribe and teach exercises to the children and their families. The physical therapist and rehab therapists show the parents how to do the exercises with their children to stimulate their development. Physical movement helps with walking, coordination, and strengthening to help prevent contractures. The outreach workers from Nyandengoh! check in with families, making sure the exercises are practiced. Success stories like Mariama and Ishmael’s, who both have cerebral palsy and have learned to walk, have encouraged many to keep up with the exercises.
The school is a core part of the work that Nyandengoh! does. It is open to children with disabilities who need extra care and attention. When a child enrolls in the Nyandengoh! school, they do so for three years, and then they return to their community school or learn a trade. Though the school is still new, mainstream teachers have already asked Nyandengoh! how they can help the students that are in their classrooms.
“A ‘typical’ day [at the Nyandengoh! school],” Sylvanus says with amusement, “is that they are never exactly the same.” In general, the day begins at 8 a.m. with staff arrival and preparation for the school day. The children then begin arriving at the school, where they are served a breakfast of hot tea and bread. The children spend the morning in class, learning the fundamentals through activities and songs. Teaching is in English. Phonics are taught in songs like ‘Go, goat, out of the garden,’ which have been adapted by a missionary so that the children of Sierra Leone recognize the images. The children love to sing, as do the adults. One of the favorites is ‘Tel am tenki, tel Papa God tenki,’ which means ‘Thank Him, thank Father God,’ sung in the Krio language. At lunchtime, the children are then given a lunch of rice with a sauce made of green leaves, like potato or cassava, and fish or palm oil. After lunchtime, the students go back to their homes.
Once the children leave, the staff begins to prepare for the next day and visit local families. The home visits are for dispensing medicines, teaching the families what exercises to keep doing with their children, and providing encouragement. On Friday afternoons, Nyandengoh! staff spend time together singing, encouraging each other, and reading scripture. Staff have a hunger for being in the Word and discussing what that looks like in their daily lives. Having this time together for spiritual nourishment is essential for the staff to build a relationship with God and each other…
To read the full story, purchase a May back issue here.
Subscribe today to get the full stories in print each month!
Sabrina and her husband live near Ragersville, Ohio, and have been blessed with four spunky children. She values time with her family, loves to bake, and is an avid reader.