Wednesday, May 23, 2018

the story of Hope for Life and some of its members

In 1995, I was about to leave SMA so that I could get my Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy. I thought I’d be able to do even more if I had “official” education and training in that field. A year or two before that, Jean Thebault (Fr. John), an SMA priest from France, had left Ghana. His life had been (and still is) all about what SMA says that SMA is about – mission to the most abandoned. He worked with prisoners, street children and people with disabilities. He had an open ear and a compassionate, but not bleeding, heart. People visited him and through those visits and discussions Hope for Life was born. JB visited him prior to Hope for Life’s existence. JB, who I wrote about a couple of years ago, had heard that there was a priest who welcomed and sometimes assisted people with disabilities. He went to Fr. John for a wheelchair, and when Fr. John asked why he wanted the wheelchair, JB honestly responded, “so I can be pushed out of my room and sit under a tree.” Fr. John’s response was to advise JB to return home and think about what he could do with the chair that would help him to better his life and to live with dignity. He told JB that when he had a better answer, they could talk about acquiring a wheelchair. Through back and forth visits a plan came to life. To sum it up, a wheelchair and typewriter so that JB could start a business typing letters for people gradually led to a school, under that same tree, of around a hundred students at a time. Some of the students that passed through JB’s school have gone on to be doctors, lawyers and politicians.  

When Fr. John was about to leave Ghana, he asked the US Province of SMA if there were any lay people that could carry on with Hope for Life. Since I was about to leave Ivory Coast and this was my field of interest, I was asked to go to Ghana to continue with Hope for Life (HFL) and happily accepted, postponing the Master’s Degree for a few years. It sounded exactly like what I was going to study. It was still a small community-based project at the time – I think about 150 - 200 members, all people with disabilities, and all with a spirit of support for one another. 

There were no handouts – people earned what they received – and a commitment was formed between HFL, the person, the person’s family and the community. If someone decided they wanted surgery so they could walk upright (albeit often with crutches and leg braces/callipers), rather than crawl on the ground, the surgery wasn’t where things began or ended. The surgery was a result of conversations, visitations made to that person and visitations by that person to others who had received similar surgeries.  The surgery was a step towards something else, as well (as with JB’s wheelchair/typewriter leading to greater dignity and being a valued member of the community). It wasn’t so that someone could become more mobile and go be under a tree, but rather so they could become more mobile and go to school, go to vocational training, go to a job, etc.  The entire process also always came with an agreement for some kind of contribution or reciprocity.  Wheelchairs often required a financial contribution from the recipient. Vocation training often resulted in the member agreeing to train 1 or more other members once they became fully trained and established in their business. Everything had the goal of building up dignity and self-respect.


Sarah is a beautiful person, inside and out who, like JB, has been a role model for so many Hope for Life and community members. She has also been someone who became and has remained a good friend and, like JB, an advisor to me and others. When I first arrived at HFL in 1996, she was one of the first people I came to know. She was in her mid-20s and had had a chronic infection of some sort on her leg for most of her life. It was possible to smell her infection, like rotten meat, from across a room. I was with her when a doctor advised amputation. So, the conversation began. After spending a week or so at home with her family to discuss things, she accepted our invitation to stay with us at Bethany House, which was the central point for HFL – a place where people with disabilities could come together for an afternoon or a couple of weeks to have a bit of a respite from their daily lives and know that they would be accepted and be among friends. Her stay was intended to be an opportunity to learn more about amputation as well as to make up her own mind after having input from family and others, but without having ongoing pressure from everyone. During her stay with us we visited others who had leg amputations. We had a lot of talks and sharing - she told me that for at least 10 years doctors had advised her that she would need an amputation, but that no one had ever been with her when the doctor said that, and she was afraid, so she never talked about it. After about a month, she had her surgery, and, following some recuperation and some rehab, she came to stay with us again in Bethany House for a couple of weeks.  She was nervous about returning to her community and family prior to being completely healed and with an artificial leg, however, she eventually realized that everyone would have greater understanding and support for her if they had been a part of the process and it didn’t all just seem to be magic – one day an infection, the next day walking with an artificial leg.  Sarah eventually went on to train in hairdressing and try to open her business. Anytime that she was asked, she was ready to go with us to visit another member and their family to discuss surgery that was recommended. She is now a widow, with a little boy of about 10 years. Fortunately, she has a wonderful family and community around her. 

However, as always, unanticipated things come up, such as needing her prosthetic replaced.  About a month ago she sent me a message to pass on Easter greetings, and mentioned how she is struggling to move around these days because she needs a new leg. I promised I’d write a story about her – I have been wanting to update the blog for a long time, anyway, and this was a good motivator. 

Artificial legs in Ghana are not the high-tech things of athletes in the “West”, however, they do make it possible for people to walk upright, look other people in the eyes and feel they have some dignity. One way or another, I will figure out a way to get her what she needs.

This seemed like a good opportunity to share her story, as well as the Hope for Life story. It seemed like a good way to re-start updating the blog, as well.  I have a couple of other articles already half-started, and just need to get motivated to continue.

Sarah with a niece


At 8:36 PM, Blogger MJ said...

She sounds like a pretty wonderful person if she is willing to go visit others and talk about the surgery to them. I'm sure it is a big help to them being able to talk to someone who has gone through it and see how she is doing. It's one thing to have someone tell you about it and how much better you will bel but another to be able to see and talk to someone who has actually done it.

At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dipo --- You left out one of the most important things. HOW MUCH MONEY IS NEEDED???!!!!! Is the leg purchased in Ghana or elsewhere? How does someone help? Well you can sure tell you're enjoying the good life, because you forgot to ask for money!!!! Love, Me


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