Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Psychologist is 'walking the walk' for Sierra Leone

NIAGARA FALLS - While many people talk about improving the world, Kenneth Krieger, a psychologist for the Niagara Falls School District, has spent the past eight years walking the walk.

With the help of the Niagara Falls teachers union, friends and others, Krieger managed to raise the money to build and staff a grammar school for children in the Makonko area of Sierra Leone, a West African country that, Krieger said, "has been ranked the poorest nation in the world for the last eight years."

Educational opportunities are rare for most children because the 10-year civil war that ravaged the country during most of the 1990s and the early 2000s killed the economy and the school system, said Krieger, who lives in Kenmore.

Through a charitable organization he helped form, EduNations, Krieger was able to raise the $24,000 it took to build a school to serve some 300 pupils in first through sixth grades. The school opened in September and serves six villages in the central part of the country.

Last month, EduNations raised about $27,000 to help enhance the school's programs at a special dinner in Williamsville. Krieger said that money will be used to ensure the children have well-trained teachers, an excellent curriculum and the materials they need to succeed.

The school also offers one hot meal per day to pupils and their families and teaches children how to grow food. EduNations soon plans to send a new tractor to the area to help people tend farms.

This is important because families often find it necessary to have their children work instead of attend school, Krieger said. In other cases, he said, parents choose not to eat so they can use their money to help finance an education for their children.

EduNations' next objective is to build a secondary school, Krieger said.

"It will cost $24,000," he said. "I have to go to Sierra Leone pretty soon to meet with my partners there to pave the way for it."

Those who would like to help are asked to make donations to EduNations Inc., PO Box 119, Kenmore, NY 14217.

Without a secondary school, some of the children at the elementary school will likely end up on the streets involved in prostitution or stealing in order to cover the cost of continuing their education, Krieger said.

Like most people, Krieger said, he and his wife, Jennifer, were not always on the front lines fighting to help people in dire need.

Krieger said he started getting involved in humanitarian work in the late 1990s by helping refugees who were resettling locally from Kosovo and Sudan.

Then he heard through a friend in Rochester about orphans who had escaped Sierra Leone and took refuge in a church in neighboring Guinea.

After that, Krieger and his wife adopted one of the children in 2000, a daughter named Mariatu, and a second daughter, Wara, from the same group in 2002. He said several friends have adopted five other children.

"When my wife and I heard about these kids our hearts were ready," Krieger said, "and not doing something was never an option."

He had an epiphany in 2002 when he traveled to Sierra Leone to pick up his second adopted daughter. He had rented a house in a safe area near United Nations peacekeeping forces and had returned home from Wara's orphanage when he found a 15-year-old girl sitting in his living room.

"I wasn't sure why she was there, but I figured she needed some food," he recalled. "So I engaged her in conversation and gave her a Coke and something to eat. After talking to her I found out she was a student, a good student, and that her family was choosing not to eat so they could save their money to pay her school fees.

"When I asked her how much she needed, she told me 60 U.S. dollars. So I reached into my pocket, pulled out $60 and gave it to her. . . . She got down on her knees, bowed to me. Then she stood up, with tears in her eyes, and thanked me. She just couldn't believe I would do that for her."

Later on, he said, he learned that a local prostitute had tried to help the girl out by sending her to one of the men visiting the area. The prostitute told her if she had sex with the man, he would give her the money she needed.

"I apparently was going to be her very first client," Krieger said. "Fortunately, she was able to leave my place with her tuition paid and she didn't have to sacrifice herself for it. That was one of the things I couldn't shake, one of the memories I couldn't forget."

It was an experience that persuaded him to do what he can to provide children who badly want an education the schools they need to get one.

He said the visit to Sierra Leone represented "the blinders being lifted," the experience that sent him on his current path.

The Kriegers' adopted daughters, now 12 and 13, today are happy Americans, their father said, and doing very well.

Link to Buffalo News