Extreme poverty is a persistent challenge in the West African Nation of Liberia, where people continue to feel the after-effects of a 14-year civil war and the 2014 Ebola epidemic. The World Bank estimates that 54% of Liberians live on less than $2 per day and 59% of eligible children attend school. Despite these realities, the future has promise: the growing Liberian Youth Orchestra (LYO) is working tirelessly to empower children and target poverty in this country.
The History of LYO
In 2018, Julie McGhee, a musician from Canton, MI, formed the Liberian Youth Orchestra (LYO) string program. The program runs at Heart of Grace School, in Lower Johnsonville, just outside Monrovia, Liberia’s capital. McGhee recalls that she had traveled to Liberia on three prior mission trips before she visited any schools. When she visited Heart of Grace School in 2016, she discovered there were no developed music programs. McGhee states, “Some schools had choirs, but that really was the extent of music education in Liberia.”
The path to securing the LYO was quite difficult, requiring took two years of planning, securing donations and overcoming major obstacles. For example, Liberian customs held LYO’s donated string instruments in customs for five months, delaying the start of the program. As a last resort, McGhee emailed Dr. Jewel Howard-Taylor, a senator who would eventually become Liberia’s vice president. Dr. Howard-Taylor was able to free the trapped shipment from customs, and in November 2018, the LYO officially launched. McGhee traveled to Liberia again and spent six weeks conducting a string orchestra camp at Heart of Grace School. She has continued LYO’s impact by regularly teaching lessons via video call from her home in Michigan, as well as intermittently traveling to Liberia. Meanwhile, McGhee’s teaching assistant, a young Liberian man named McGill Kowula, handles on-the-ground operations.
LYO’S Impact on Children
LYO has quickly become a source of pride in the community, as involvement in the orchestra is helping children learn to read. Literacy is a requirement to enter the LYO, motivating children to study and work hard to enter the program. In 2020, 12 prospective orchestra members learned to read and obtained acceptance into LYO.
Several of LYO’s 43 string students have experienced other dramatic academic successes after becoming members of LYO, McGhee said. One such student was Mary, who began formal education in 2016 at the age of 11 but failed her first year. She transferred to Heart of Grace School in 2017, where she began playing in the LYO the following year. After involvement in the orchestra, Mary not only became a better student but jumped two grade levels. McGhee interviewed each student at the beginning of the string program and again a year after it started. According to McGhee, “I noticed that by the second interview, Mary told her story in a completely different way. She said, ‘I played my violin in front of the president, and that’s something no one in my family has ever done.’
LYO Needs Sustained Support to End Poverty in Liberia
State schools in Liberia are available at no cost, but many families prefer private schools. Unfortunately, 25% of young Liberian children report sexual abuse by a staff member. Many often consider private schools to be safer. However, the high rate of poverty in Liberia means that many families may struggle to afford private school fees, which are equivalent to about $100 per year. As a result, LYO students often receive sponsorship to stay in school, which may come through private donations or through other means. For example, the Jewels Starfish Foundation (JSF) is a female empowerment organization, run by Vice President Howard-Taylor, that sponsors education for girls grades 7-12. JSF currently pays tuition for 11 girls at Heart of Grace School.
Though McGhee is hopeful that she will be able to start a youth orchestra at another school in Liberia, LYO needs $44 per month per student to cover operational fees, and the current chapter of the orchestra has not received enough funding for the 2020/2021 school year. According to McGhee, LYO benefits greatly from sustained monthly giving. In fact, donations large and small are helping LYO to continue its work and to reduce poverty in Liberia.
– Andrea Kruger