A Glimmer of Hope
Being the first athletic team to enter a country after a prolonged civil war may be daunting, but that did not stop Grace College’s volleyball team from going to Liberia. Over the course of 13 days this past summer, lives were changed both on the team and in the country. Here is part of their story:
From One War-Torn Team to Another
The people of Liberia know war. In the last three decades, two civil wars have devastated the countryside and caused over 350,000 casualties. Peace is new to Liberians, with internal violence only having ceased since 2003.
Members of the Grace College volleyball team are all too familiar with pain as well. Last September, freshman Mallori Kastner died in a freak accident just a month after joining the volleyball team, leaving the team with much heartache. Though it is certainly not complete, senior outside hitter Stephanie Lawson said the team’s trip contributed much to the healing process.
“It was good to bring the freshmen into our team. Though they didn’t have to experience it with us, they still wanted to help us carry the burden,” Lawson explained.
This divine pairing provided a greater connection between the players and the people of Liberia. Not only could the team share their story, but as head coach Andria Harshman put it, “We got to watch how they are getting back up too.”
Who Needs to Shower
Entering a third world country, the volleyball team was expecting some cultural adjustments.
Staying in the capital city of Monrovia (population 1 million), which Provost Dr. Bill Katip described as “a big village, rather than a city,” the team would experience poverty firsthand. Yet they were told they would be staying in a hotel with running water, electricity, and Internet—more than almost everyone else could say.
Despite the scenic view, complete with an ocean shore just yards away, the hotel conditions proved to be less than desirable. Players would shower by filling buckets with water, even foregoing showers altogether some nights.
“Rather than having four people be able to shower in 15 minutes on a normal trip, you have to pick who’s going to shower first in case everyone can’t,” Harshman said with a laugh.
The unusual conditions did not come without their own blessings, though. Players grew closer and learned to appreciate what they had more. Lawson told of a moment in the trip that reminded her of the perspective she should have.
“We were sitting on the bus stopped in traffic when this guy came up to our bus window and started talking to me. He spent a few minutes telling me to make the most of my life and how blessed I was. While I was expecting to walk away with a new perspective, I wasn’t expecting to have it be directly told to me.”
Katip came away impressed with how the team responded. “I was proud of them for setting a godly example. I didn’t hear them complain about a thing.”
Not Quite Undefeated
When the volleyball team was not visiting Liberian dignitaries (like the president of the YMCA, the United States’ ambassador to Liberia, the President of the University of Liberia, the Minister of Youth Sport, and the Vice President of Liberia), chances are they were running volleyball clinics, playing with Liberian children, or, of course, playing volleyball.
Over the course of their trip, the volleyball team had the chance to showcase their skills against Liberian competition. Despite beating the United States Marines’ team, the University of Liberia’s women’s team, the Liberian National team, and a group of guys from the YMCA, the volleyball team fell short once—against the Liberian military team. Used to playing without shoes in beach volleyball, the players were not used to playing with one extra level of competition—fire ants—which resulted in the only loss for Grace.
In what was considered “mass chaos at times,” the volleyball team put on clinics three days on the trip—two for volleyball and one for… soccer. Though most players were strangers to soccer, the team helped Liberian Aldophus “Doc” Lawson run a soccer clinic, which was one part of his plan to help develop a parks and recreation system in Liberia.
Because of the Liberian government’s push for gender equality in sports participation, having the volleyball team play and teach volleyball was monumental. All age groups and skill levels were represented at the clinics, where the YMCA served as home for an overseas Lancer Camp.
Harshman explained that the goal of these clinics was to show the Liberian people what a clinic looks like, help improve volleyball skill levels, and teach kids about life. The clinics were well-received.
“It was really great to see the appreciation they had for us,” junior middle hitter Stephanie Bolt added.
A People of Hope
When Coach Andria Harshman was exploring options for where the team could go for their trip, she asked Ignite International where the biggest need was. The response? Liberia.
Matched with the team’s desire to go to where they were needed, the opportunity to help Doc Lawson jumpstart his sports program made the team choose Liberia over going to Israel. Their help was a huge step for future ministry in Liberia.
Judy Fox, founder of Ignite International, thanked the team for taking one man’s goal (Lawson’s) and making hundreds of people see it.
“I’ve been to 15 or 16 countries and what I always have seen is that when we go back the second and third times the trip far exceeds the first time. With what we experienced with the Grace team, it’s hard to imagine anything exceeding that. Future groups will be so well received and already have an impact before they get there because of the Grace team,” Fox said.
Despite losing a generation to war, the country of Liberia has not given up. In fact, the youth are active in trying to get the country back on its feet.
For one day on the trip, Katip, Harshman, and Fox were scheduled to speak at the YMCA about leadership. Though it was intended for eight to ten people on staff, 200-300 people from all over showed up to listen.
“I was impressed that the people of Liberia were still a people of hope and ambition,” Katip said. “The civil war didn’t take away their vision of the future.”
Thirteen days. Fourteen players. Numerous volleyballs hit. And countless lives touched. The volleyball team’s trip to Liberia is a story of hope.
And hope does not disappoint.
By Zane Gard
This story was published in the September 1 issue of Grace’s student newspaper, The Sounding Board.