Even from far down the beach, I could make out the familiar cries of a soccer game. But as I got closer, I realized this was no ordinary game at all. Every player on the field had missing limbs. Maneuvers I had never seen before were performed at high-speed; crutches and clever jumps became combined as players dribbled a cloth ball down the sand in an effort to score. As I looked on in awe, I noticed one player on the sidelines, watching alone by the water.
It was 2018 and I was on my first mission in Freetown, Sierra Leone, heading back to my hotel after a long day of meetings. I stopped to talk to that girl on the sidelines. Her name was Eleanor and her story changed me forever.
Two decades before, at the tail end of Sierra Leone’s 11-year-long civil war, Eleanor’s village was attacked by rebel forces. She was just 10 years old. Alerted by the town crier, her family fled the village just in time, but on their return, Eleanor stepped on a landmine - blowing off the lower half of her right leg.
With no access to medical care, her injury quickly became infected, and when Eleanor finally reached a hospital, the remaining part of her leg had to be amputated.
Through her traumatic ordeal, Eleanor bonded with the nurses who cared for her. She told herself that one day she would become a nurse too and pay that love and care forward to others like her.
Growing up after the war, Eleanor faced discrimination and bigotry at every turn. It was difficult to get to school without crutches, and she was bullied because she looked different. But through it all, Eleanor persisted - determined to show her community that despite her disability, she had unlimited potential. Eleanor went on to graduate first in her class.
After completing her studies, Eleanor volunteered for several organizations and became an advocate for persons with disabilities. She became a role model for disabled children - exactly the person she had longed for growing up. In 2016, Eleanor decided to start her own organization, the Disability Empowerment Movement of Sierra Leone (DEMSL). Her mission was simple: help disabled children, street children, and orphans of Ebola.
Eleanor’s vision and courage touched me deeply as I listened to her recounting her story that day on the beach. Eleanor’s determination has gotten her far. Three years ago, she received a scholarship that sponsored her travel to America.
When visiting in New York, she met with the organization Aspire who provided her with funds for her first prosthetic leg. With two legs, Eleanor was able to complete her studies and, in 2022, was accepted into nursing school - her dream from all those years ago.
Today, there are thousands of disabled children in Sierra Leone who lack access to critical medical care - children with incredible potential, just like Eleanor, who have not been as fortunate. These children are in urgent need of crutches and wheelchairs. They face discrimination in education, and often end up abandoned by their families and being homeless.
Eleanor learned first-hand that there are three factors are critical to change the life of a disabled child: education, healthcare, and hope. With support, the potential of these children can be unlocked, and they can be helped to achieve their dreams.
Next time you are on a mission, don’t shy away from a new encounter, you never know how it might change your life for the better.
To learn more about Eleanor and DEMSL.