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Mercy Project rescues child workers in Ghana

Mercy Project rescues child workers in Ghana

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After runners finish the second BCS Marathon and Half-Marathon on Dec. 9, they'll have the added satisfaction of knowing their efforts may help make a small dent in the practice of child slavery in the West African nation of Ghana.

The Mercy Project, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to ending child slavery in Ghana, is one of three charities that will benefit from next month's race (the others are SOS Ministries and the Down Syndrome Association of Brazos Valley).

Last month, representatives of the Mercy Project traveled to a fishing village in Ghana, where they peacefully removed 24 enslaved children who had been living and working there.

Chris Field, the executive director of Mercy Project, said that the children suffered from work conditions that no one should have to endure.

"One little girl -- her name was Ruth -- told us a story about how every time she would fish she was so scared, because she had been in the village one day when they brought the body of a boy back into the village. [His body] had been in the river three days after [he drowned] when he had gone down to untangle the nets," Field said.

The mission resulted from more than two years of planning and raising funds with the hope of ultimately being able to alter the quality of life for enslaved children.

Human trafficking and exploitative and forced child labor were included in a list of human rights abuses in Ghana in a 2011 report by the U.S. State Department.

The minimum age that a person legally can begin working in Ghana is typically 15 years old, but children can begin to do light work at 13 if the occupation is deemed to be safe.

It has been estimated that thousands of children have been sold into a harsh and dangerous life where they are forced to tirelessly work for their owners.

Before founding Mercy Project, Field was a pastor. After reading a book that referenced child trafficking in Ghana, he decided to go there on a family mission trip in 2009.

After the trip, Field decided to fully dedicate himself to combating the system and founded Mercy Project in 2010.

"Its a culture so broken that more than half of the adults in a community would do the same thing to kids as they had done to themselves," Field said.

Offering alternatives

It was not enough for Field to simply remove children from their work as slaves. He said that he wanted to work with the villagers who had purchased the children to eliminate the need for slave labor.

"Anytime you come into a community and you modify some sort of aspect of how they do their life, you have to assure the sustainability of that project, so they don't go back to buying children," Field said.

Mercy Project's strategy was to work with a village's trade skills to develop a low-cost means to successfully sustain themselves without the use of slave labor.

"They know all the dynamics [of the industry] already. So, if we just bring in a more efficient way for them to do the things they already know how to do, we just took a product they already had that was not effective and made it efficient without child labor," Field said.

In the fishing village of Adovpke, located along the shores of the Volta River, children have been bought to work with the fishermen -- some as young as 4 or 5 years old.

"The conditions these kids are living in aren't very good. They sleep on the floor, and eat one small meal a day -- raw fish," Field said. "Some of the kids told us different stories about being abused by the masters, being forced to work even if they were sick, and being beaten."

Mercy Project has three employees working in Ghana who spent more than nine months developing a relationship with the community in Adovepke.

"The fishing isn't going very well because the lake is over-fished, and the ones we're catching are very small," Field said.

Because Adovepke is a fishing community, Mercy Project researched ways to improve villagers' existing knowledge of the trade. Through searching online and talking with experts at Texas A&M University, Mercy Project developed a plan to teach the villagers cage fishing, an economically sustainable practice that would allow them to mass-produce fish without needing the extra child labor.

Brandon Jones, a member of the nonprofit's board of directors, said that tailoring the economic projects made the most sense.

"We brought them technology and taught them how to use cages so that ultimately they are able to provide for themselves in ways that they never have before," Jones said.

A Ghanaian employee with Mercy Project has been tasked with periodically checking up on the village to make sure that it has not reverted to the use of child labor.

"Our goal is that the community will self-police. Everyone is benefiting because they gave up the trafficked kids, and they got the cages [in return]. If Mercy Project comes in and sees that they have gone back to using kids, they can remove the cages, which can cost [the community] money," Field said.

Smiling faces

After leaving Adovepke with the children, Mercy Project took them to Challenging Heights, where they will stay for at least two months until they are returned to their families.

Gretchen Nickerson is one of the local Mercy Project employees who accompanied Field to Ghana to document the experience. She recalled that when the group reached the rehabilitation center, it was incredible to see the transformation of the children after just a short time of being off of the river.

"After we reached the rehab center with the children ... they were smiling and [got to see] their beds for the very first time. Getting to walk them through that -- it's one of those things that's hard to put into words," Nickerson said.

The Ghanaian-run rehabilitation center is about a two-hour drive from the village and focuses on treating trafficked children with psychological counseling and medical attention. The center was founded in 2005 by a man who had been sold by his parents when he was 6 years old and forced to work on the lake until he was able to escape and put himself through high school and college.

The State Department, in its 2011 Human Rights Report on Ghana, observed that the Ghanaian constitution provides for "free compulsory and universal basic education" for all children from kindergarten through junior high school. It also indicated, however, that parents had to shoulder the cost of their children's uniforms and writing materials.

Many of the children, like the rehab center's founder, were sold into slavery by parents who could not afford to send them to school, Field said.

To remove an incentive for parents to sell their children back into slavery, Mercy Project will pay for the fees associated with the children's education for two years.

While at the center, Field said, he asked the children if they were happy. He said he was met with silence for a few moments until a little boy, around 5 years old, cried out, "We're just so happy, we can't even explain to you what we're happy about because there are so many good things happening to us."

Mercy Project is funded through profits from various events like the BCS Marathon + Half-Marathon, in addition to a Turkey Trot run, a Guinness World Record event in the spring, and an auction and benefit dinner in the summer. It also receives donations from various supporters.

"We do lots of fundraising and we have been grateful to have people who really believe in what we're doing," Field said.

Each project that Mercy Project tackles has different costs, board member Jones said. The recent rescue cost about $40,000.

From the beginning of the year until Sept. 30, Jones said, the nonprofit organization's earnings were $322,000. The money was divided so that 60 percent went toward program expenses -- paying for nets, cages, school and travel -- and 40 percent was for administrative costs, such as employee salaries and health insurance.

"We hope as an organization, we are getting more efficient and better as we go along," Jones said.

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