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Liberian outreach: Leonard woman maintains African school

Shirley Shaw of Leonard, right, helps Hawa Stovall Collins maintain a school in Liberia. Submitted Photo

When Shirley Joy Shaw left her broken marriage and moved her four school-age children and two dogs back to Minnesota in 1973, she continued doing the volunteer work she enjoyed as an American living in Paris.

Shaw has since retired to Leonard, but she continues her outreach by helping establish and maintain a school in the West African country of Liberia.

Living on the child support and alimony provided by her former spouse, Shaw saved dollars out of the grocery money to pay for tuition at a local college. It took her eight years to complete her degree in1998. During those college years, Shaw took out a mortgage to start the first Rakhma Home. Her dream of caring for the elderly suffering from the effects of mental deterioration finally became a reality. Rakhma, an Aramaic word for "unconditional love," was the focus of the care. The managers and workers were carefully screened by Shaw for their tenderness and patience toward the elderly. Many of the workers were far from their native lands in Africa as Minnesota has one the largest percentage of the 25,000 Liberians now living in the United States.

One of her managers, Hawa Stovall Collins, an émigré from Liberia, said she wanted to return to her homeland and help educate the children. In 2005, Liberians had elected a woman president, Ellen Johnson Sirlef, who ended the 24-year civil war, and Hawa wanted to be there. Sirlef now sustains a stable government.

And so began the long saga of Hawa's return to her homeland and the support that continues to flow from Shaw in her quest to help her friend fulfill her dream.

Early letters from Hawa spoke of how she returned to her husband, Hugh, and a home near Monrovia, Liberia, that was totally destroyed and the need to rebuild her life along with those of the children she so wanted to help.

In a letter dated Sept. 29, 2006, Hawa wrote, "The transition has not been so easy as I expected. Financially, it has been a struggle, but a worthwhile one. I have been busy with rehearsal and pre-production of my children's television program, "Our Place," and I will not be getting paid until the program kicks off. I am happy that within the time that I have been home I have managed to do a lot."

In one of her letters, Hawa told of how her job pays $35 a month, and during the nine months, she was working she only got paid one time. Her husband obtained a position with United Nations, so there was some money coming in to support the couple.

Along with these letters and later e-mails, Hawa spoke of the need for books, pencils, dictionaries, novels for reading groups, writing tablets and rain gear. As Hawa related to Shaw, the children arrive at school wet, and they get sick. In western minds, school is a solid building with a ceiling, windows, doors and walls, not the open-air room with latticework leaves passing for walls.

"Please send copy books, art materials, and dictionaries would also be great. Shoes, clothes and anything wearable, too," wrote Hawa. "I just got a barrel and have already given some items to the school in the neighborhood."

The barrels that Hawa mentioned are the result of the ongoing volunteer work that Shaw does from here in Minnesota by collecting educational materials, useable clothing, and various items and filling barrels that are sent to Hawa via a company in Brooklyn Park, Minn. When Hawa told Shaw that a teacher, Charles, was secured for the new school, Shaw made a commitment to contribute half of the teacher's $50 a month salary for as long as she could financially afford to do so. In fact, this 75-year-old "fairy godmother" is now making arrangements to pay the entire salary for Charles because he cannot continue to support himself without a full stipend.

Shaw visits and speaks to any group, at any time, at any place who would welcome her and listen to her plea for any donation toward support of the children and teachers involved in Hawa Collins' ever-expanding educational endeavors. "Big Ma," as Shaw is known to her African family, now has a school named in her honor - The Shirley Shaw Nursery and Elementary School, Zorkpah Town, Lower Margibi City, Liberia, West Africa.

Shaw is known to cry for joy as she talks about the dirt block school with two rooms for 100 students. She said in a recent e-mail, Hawa wrote, "The dirt floor of school contains jiggers (a parasite which gets into the toes of the children and infects them with eggs. If untreated, they cause deformities in the feet and joints.) The children use their laps as desks, and I am trying to get a set of good benches for them to sit on. Perhaps you could send some foot coverings."

Hawa also said she is applying for registration of the school with the Ministry of Education to try and get financial support from the government.

Shaw continually collects materials - even some little girl party dresses are thrown in for fun - for the barrels sent to Liberia. Each barrel costs $25 and holds 50 gallons of materials. The barrels are packed and loaded from the Rakhma Grace Home in Minnetonka, Minn. and It costs $175 plus a $50 clearing fee in Liberia to send each one. It usually takes about three months for the barrel to get to the Freeport of Monrovia. The tiny Elim Lutheran Church in Clearbrook recently gave Shaw the money to ship another barrel of goods to her friend Hawa.

Shaw is already collecting small amounts of money toward the cost of the next shipment to Liberia. Anyone who wishes to contribute to this project may drop off donations to the Clearwater Life Center in Clearbrook. For more information on this story or how to reach Shaw as a speaker, send a note to Shirley Shaw, 28048 Mason Drive, Leonard, MN 56652.

"The Rakhma Story" was written in a book by Lynn Baskfield in 1999. The first Rakhma home has evolved to Rakhma, Inc. and the homes are named Peace, Grace and Joy. Shaw still maintains a relationship as executive director emeritus and attends meetings to make sure all is going well.