Liberia’s next generation

Three Iowans are teaming up to change the lives of hundreds of children half a world away.

From Des Moines to Liberia with love: Once completed, the Agape Empowerment Center will provide meals, education and lodging for nearly 450 Liberian children. Rendering: Shive Hattery

Writer: Mathany Ahmed

Des Moines residents Chong Schwartz, David Schwartz and Jackson Jaylah took very different paths to the Agape Empowerment Center, a faith-based support organization for children in Liberia.

Chong Schwartz was motivated to help children in need because of her childhood in South Korea.

Her husband, David Schwartz, was focusing on mission work after a serious health scare prompted him to leave the Fortune 500 company he founded.

And Jackson Jaylah, the Agape Empowerment Center’s founder, was driven by a desire to help his beloved homeland recover from two civil wars.

Fate brought the three together at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines. In the three years since they met, they’ve transformed the center into a place that offers nearly 450 Liberian children a roof over their heads, three meals a day and an education.

“We’ve been very fortunate in our lifetimes,” David said. “We’re not rich, we’re not poor. We did just fine. The question now is: How can we finish well?”

The project has garnered attention and support from Liberia’s president, Joseph Boakai. Together, the team is working to expand the facility to include a brick-and-mortar school that can provide K-12 education for up to 1,000 students, vocational training for its graduates, a health clinic, a worship center and even a fully equipped soccer field.

“If we could give hope to just one child, it could change their generation,” Chong said.

Jackson Jaylah, left, met Chong and David Schwartz through a West Des Moines church. They’re all working to help kids in Jackson’s native Liberia. Photo: Duane Tinkey

The challenge

Jackson founded the center in 2016 in a small mud hut in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, where he and a devoted team of teachers taught 60 to 120 children every day.

Despite the team’s best efforts, it wasn’t enough. Funding was always scarce, so they couldn’t guarantee a daily lunch.

The school also became a haphazard home to a number of orphans. With nowhere else to go, they often slept on thin mats or right on the dirt floor.

“It was just me, my family members and a few friends,” Jackson said. “It was not well built, it was not well structured. There was no blueprint, and ventilation was a problem.”

The Agape Care Mission needed major help to support the children in the ways they needed. That’s where the Schwartzes came in.

When they met in 2010, the couple connected over their shared Christian faith and commitment to charity, especially initiatives that serve children in need.

The two had befriended another church member, Austina Forkpa, who, like Jackson, had migrated to Des Moines from Liberia. The Schwartzes unofficially adopted the single mom and her young children, which helped them learn about Liberia and the struggles of its people.

So when Jackson gave his Agape Care Mission pitch to the Schwartzes, David’s reply was straightforward: “You might have hit the right people here. Liberia is already on our hearts.”

Small world: Chong Schwartz said her childhood in South Korea in the 1970s helps her relate to kids in Liberia today. Photo: David Schwartz

The impact

It’s been a year and a half since Jackson, Chong and David partnered up to transform the Agape Care Mission into the more holistic Agape Empowerment Center. Since then, the trio has expanded the center’s services to help more children.

“The first time I visited, the children were sitting still in the same chair for three or four hours. I thought to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re such good kids,’” Chong said. “Later, I realized it wasn’t that they were just ‘good kids.’ They were lethargic. Nutritionally, they were not functioning.”

Today, all the children are guaranteed three meals a day. The 23 orphans who live on campus sleep in bunk beds instead of mats or the floor. The team also installed a well, which supplies clean water. Student attendance has more than tripled.

“The No. 1 thing is we wanted to meet their basic human needs: food, water and shelter. But even those, we have not done well enough yet,” Chong said. It’s a work in progress. In Liberia, accessibility is a challenge as tough as funding.

Perspectives and preparation

Chong believes her childhood in a recovering nation has helped her connect with the young people at the center. Despite South Korea’s current reputation as an economic powerhouse, when she was a child in Seoul in the 1970s, the country was one of the poorest in the world — like Liberia today.

Chong recalled a 7-year-old Liberian child sharing a chicken bone with a group of toddlers. It reminded her of how she cared for younger children in her old neighborhood in Seoul. Her parents were often absent, working for low wages, like many parents in Monrovia.

“It’s almost like I had to walk their walk then to know how they feel now,” Chong said. “God prepared me so that when I came here, I knew what to expect.”

It’s a sentiment the entire team shares.

David tapped into his previous experiences as a CEO and the head of the Lutheran Church of Hope’s philanthropic efforts in other African countries to overhaul the center’s finances and start its fundraising campaign.

Jackson’s connection to Liberia has helped secure government support, including the attention of the country’s president and other leaders. The minister of transportation recently joined the center’s board.

The new Agape Empowerment Center still faces a number of obstacles. The team needs to raise between $10 million and $15 million, acquire 20 acres of land and manage construction in a country with a six-month rainy season. And just traveling to Monrovia is a challenge: It’s a two-day trek from Des Moines.

The challenges ahead are daunting, but one belief keeps the team going. As Chong put it, “It’s not just about me. It’s about those kids.”

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