When Samuel Rogers was eight years old, civil war forced his family to flee their home of Cotton Tree, Liberia, perched about 11 miles off the Atlantic Coast. Mr. Rogers lived in refugee camps for four years and had to switch schools every few months. He turned to a transportable hobby as a mental escape from the turmoil.
“On the refugee camp, I just decided that soccer was something that I liked to do to make me forget about what happened during the war,” Mr. Rogers said. “When I focus on soccer, it makes me forget about everything else.”
Mr. Rogers and two of his brothers were admitted to a resettlement program and landed in Salt Lake City in 2004. Now, he teaches physical education at Backman Elementary School and coaches soccer for the Utah Development Academy (UDA), a nonprofit that organizes kids’ competitive teams, a recreational league, and free soccer clinics targeted at underserved youth living on Salt Lake City’s west side. Five Rowland Hall eighth-grade boys—Aksel Anderson, Logan Bateman, Jimmy Bocock, Ben Kanter, and Patrick McNally—have played on a UDA competitive team led by Mr. Rogers, or “Skills,” as the boys affectionately call their coach.
“He gets the point across without ever having to raise his voice, without ever having to punish us for anything,” Patrick said. “We do conditioning...but our team is much stronger mentally than physically. And that’s completely, 100% Skills’ doing, because he trains us in a way where we think about the bigger picture rather than just a soccer game.”
Patrick, 14, started playing soccer under Mr. Rogers at age 11. Now, the eighth-grader calls Skills his mentor. UDA, Patrick added, has provided him and his Rowland Hall teammates with a valuable opportunity to get to know kids from all over the world, some of whom are refugees and remind Mr. Rogers of his own childhood.
Mr. Rogers has stayed in touch with friends and family back in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, and he planned a trip home in 2014. Then, an Ebola outbreak pummeled West Africa. Mr. Rogers canceled his trip. And while the war and epidemic have been calmed in Liberia, difficulties persist, particularly in education.
Mr. Rogers’ friend Bernard Quaidoo, a Cotton Tree teacher, complained to the coach about a severe lack of government funding for education. Mr. Quaidoo said that at 44 Junior High School (pictured), an elementary and middle school where he teaches, students are without basic school supplies, and his particular school has just four school computers for all students and teachers. Mr. Rogers, who’s on track to earn a teaching degree from the University of Utah in a year and half, spread the word to his soccer players. Patrick, Mr. Rogers said, took off running with the idea of helping this Liberian school.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Rogers said. “He was so excited.”
Patrick’s French teacher, Christa Brigdon, had asked her students to propose service-learning ideas that could be integrated into the curriculum. In the past, she’d orchestrated volunteer efforts for her students. “This year, I was interested in having the kids be more invested and directing the service, and making it a more personal connection,” Ms. Brigdon said. “So I put it out there.”
Patrick pitched Mr. Rogers’ idea of helping the Cotton Tree school, and Ms. Brigdon approved it. Liberia isn’t primarily a French-speaking country, but it’s surrounded by them. So Ms. Brigdon built a unit around French-speaking West Africa. Students wrote children’s books in French pertaining to West African culture, created maps for and planned West African villages, and learned about what it’s like to be a teenager in the region.
Meanwhile, Patrick crafted a formal, eloquent email to Rowland Hall Director of Technology Patrick Godfrey requesting 30 laptops no longer in use by the school. These computers, the eighth-grader wrote, would help Cotton Tree teachers plan new lessons and increase student productivity. And the increased internet access could help community members educate themselves on relevant global and local issues, such as the spread of Ebola and how people can protect themselves against the disease.
When Mr. Godfrey read Patrick’s email requesting laptops, the tech director initially thought it was “a big ask.” But after Mr. Godfrey heard a presentation from the young student, he thought it could work. Mr. Godfrey’s department wouldn’t be able to donate any of the school’s newer silver MacBooks, but he did have 65 older white MacBooks that had gone through a phase-out process and were ready to be recycled.
“The laptops have literally sat on the shelf for three or four months just waiting for our big recycle at the end of the year,” Mr. Godfrey said. “So it’s a great use for them.”
The donation came with a caveat: these older MacBooks needed new chargers and batteries. But Patrick didn’t bat an eye when Mr. Godfrey said students would have to be responsible for purchasing those supplies. Patrick and Ms. Brigdon decided to fundraise.
Ms. Brigdon, Patrick, and the other French students set their fundraising goal at $1,000 to cover the laptop supplies and shipping expenses. Patrick, who doesn’t eat sweets, didn’t want to hold a typical bake sale. Ms. Brigdon and Patrick brainstormed and decided they wanted a fundraiser with a French theme. “Every year we make crepes in French class, and all the kids just want to eat crepes,” Ms. Brigdon said. “So we decided, ‘Alright, let’s make it a crepe sale and from start to finish.’”
Ms. Brigdon took her students down the street to Smith’s grocery store. They bought the bulk of ingredients required to hold the fundraiser for four consecutive Fridays from April 29 through May 20, culminating in Rowland Hall’s annual All-School Carnival. Ms. Brigdon stresses her role in the process as solely advisory: “The whole thing was figured out by the kids,” she said, from the recipe and serving sizes to the math in the business plan. Some of her students, she added, are now expert crepe-makers.
“We’ve gotten really good at it,” Patrick said enthusiastically, “and we’ve even tried them too.”
“I hope you do,” Mr. Rogers said through a laugh.
“Yeah, they’re surprisingly good,” Patrick replied.
Patrick’s target demographic—his fellow students—seem to agree. Students lined up for the French delicacies, and the sales generated the necessary $1,000. The fundraising group plans to send off two trial laptops to the Cotton Tree school before the end of the school year. Students will then format the remaining laptops and ship them over by late 2016 or early 2017.
Mr. Rogers hopes to be in Liberia when the computers arrive through a shipping service. This trip also means he’ll get to see his mother, sister, and little brother for the first time in over a decade. “It’s going to be one of those things that puts tears in my eyes,” he said. But his journey won’t be a selfish one: he plans to hand-deliver the computers to 44 Junior High School to ensure their safe arrival. And if school is in session, he wants to volunteer his time to teach while he’s there.
After meeting Mr. Rogers, Ms. Brigdon sees how Patrick may have picked up cues from his soccer coach. Ms. Brigdon called Mr. Rogers, now 25, respectful, polite, and dignified. His Rowland Hall soccer players were eager to support their coach with a fundraiser. Taking after his coach, Patrick always thanks Ms. Brigdon after French class, is self-motivated, and is loved by his peers—in February, he won the monthly Winged Lion Award for demonstrated respect for others, individual integrity, and personal responsibility.
Like Mr. Rogers, Patrick would love to visit West Africa one day, but he’ll settle for a Skype call for now. If all goes well and the laptops reach their destination, Ms. Brigdon and her students hope to video chat with Cotton Tree students on one of their newly acquired laptops.