NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Alie Kanu was on his way to completing high school in 2011 when his older brother died.
That Kanu had finished primary and much of secondary school in itself was a feat. He was born and raised in Congo Town, a poor community prone to seasonal flooding and without basic sanitary infrastructure, in the embattled West-African nation of Sierra Leone.
He was waiting for funding to come in to help him graduate high school when his brother, an apprentice to a bus driver, died due to kidney damage. Kanu had to quit school—that is, until he got involved with the nonprofit Compassion for Peace and Child Survival Sierra Leone.
Willietta Gombeh, a New Brunswick High School senior, is a co-founder of the group. Among other things, it aims to provide education to children in Sierra Leone and push for better living conditions.
For Kanu, the nonprofit was something of a godsend. It enabled him to tackle his final high-school exams and press on to pursue a college degree in business administration.
For Gombeh, the mission is as personal as it gets. She was born in Sierra Leone
“I was extremely fortunate to have moved to the United States at a young age and enjoy opportunities not generally accessible in Sierra Leone,” she said in a statement. “For this reason, I feel responsible to help make Sierra Leone a better, safer, healthier place.”
Compassion for Peace and Child Survival in Sierra Leone launched in 2005. Gombeh, who was just a child at the time, helped start the nonprofit with her uncle, Joseph Gbao, to help children and those with AIDS, Ebola, disabilities and in the prostitution world.
The group formed in the wake of a bloody civil war that consumed Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. Rough counts estimate that the feud killed anywhere between 50,000 and 300,000 people and displaced as many as 2.5 million.
To that end, Gombeh’s work also centers on helping the victims of the war to repair their lives. The group partners with medical professionals, police, teachers, religious institutions and businesses to make that happen.
The high-school student’s primary role in the nonprofit is to “globalize” its impact, according to its website. Indeed, the group partners with donors, educators and volunteers throughout the world.
Gombeh has become as much of a source of pride in the city as she has an agent of change.
“Willietta’s activism and commitment to children in West Africa proves that anyone is capable of making a real difference in the world we live in,” Ken Redler, her high-school principal, said in a statement. “We’re extremely fortunate that she is a part of our school community. Willietta is an inspiring young woman and role model.”
But praise for the young woman’s actions isn't limited to the Hub City. In 2016, for example, Bank of America named her a top student leader.
Where does this drive come from? Gombeh, according to the nonprofit, has had a “relatively easy life”—and she wants to empower those in her birth country to live their best possible lives. That means people like Kanu, who will never have to wonder what could have been had he earned his degree.