In 1999, I had the wonderful fortune to be invited to be a part of a team that organized the United Nations Student Conference on Human Rights at the United Nations, New York.
I had heard about a man named Paul Delaney who taught elementary school in Victoria Harbour, Ontario, Canada. He was well known throughout Simcoe County District School Board because of his on-going support for Port Loko, Sierra Leone. The small community in Africa had been one of many affected negatively by the civil war the country had experienced. Paul Delaney not only educated his students about human rights but also actively engaged his students in raising funds to support a school in Port Loco. The students from both schools exchanged letters and friendship.
During the civil war in Sierra Leone, however, the letters that came to the children in Victoria Harbour from the school in Port Loko became quite revealing of the atrocities that were happening. Some photos were even sent of children being abused. Paul Delaney felt that he needed to guard the Canadian children from being exposed to the information. The Canadian children, however, had an idea of what was going on and both the children and the parents of the children were adamant that they not turn their backs on their African friends when they were needed most – and they upped their fund-raising and correspondence. Paul became creative in terms of how he got the money and letters to Port Loko. Nonetheless, the communication between the two school continued for many, many more years later.
The story I wish to tell, however, concerns what happened in 1999 when Paul Delaney and his team of four students were invited to present their Sierra Leone project to a group of 400 students from around the world who were attending the second annual Student Conference on Human Rights in New York. The group presented a slide-show and explained the story of their loyalty to the students in Port Loko. It was a very moving presentation – and even more so since the students were all under the age of 13. I had invited the Ambassador from Sierre Leone to sit at the front of Conference Room # 1 to be a part of the special guests and presenters. At the end of the Victoria Harbour presentation, the Ambassador was invited to say thank-you. He stood up, approached the microphone, but could not speak through the tears that began to flow. Eventually he pulled himself together to say, it was you! You were the school children who made us believe that someone was out there watching for us. When it seemed our world had gone dark, you were the light we needed to know that someone was watching.
Those words resonate with me to this day. It reminds me that there are many times when we think our actions are not really important when, in fact, they mean the world to someone else. Never under-estimate the power of words and the power of belief. And when things are darkest is the time to keep faith.