Once a year, the delicate pink pedals of the Yoshino Cherry Blossoms bloom; reflecting as clouds in the tidal basin. A gift from Japan in 1912, the exquisite trees remind us of a century of friendship.
“Heading down the shore,” were the words I waited to hear all year as a kid. It was a week of amusement park rides, sand castles and eating pizza for every meal. Wildwood, New Jersey, the south Jersey shore, was my playground for one week out of the year. Once the sun went down, the neon lights lit up the motels: La Vita, Rio Grande, Caribbean. Droves of people filled the boardwalk in search of funnel cake and Mack’s pizza. All heading in one direction – the Pier. From ride to ride I went, my feet dangling from the swings, screaming at the top of my lungs. As I got older, the sand castles and the roller coasters were replaced with pulsating bars and cruising to the popular sounds of summer blaring from my car stereo. I never fell out of love with this place. In college, I started photographing Wildwood and still in love years later. I’ll be back again this winter – focusing on the off-season.
Late last night, I arrived home back in Washington, DC after a rainy, icy 10-hour drive from #Morehead, #Kentucky. I spent the last 5-days at Mountain Workshops where I took the video storytelling course. For my story I spent time with, Robert Franzini a professor of printmaking at Morehead State. Evenings spent back at the workshop were inspiring as coaches shared their experiences, wisdom and work. And my late nights were spent huddled in front of my computer as I edited endless video. There were moments that I didn’t know if I could pull it off. But I did. This was due to the amazing coaches, who encouraged, supported and pushed me to work harder. I’m still reflecting on what this week meant to me, but I do know this, I’m a better storyteller thanks to this experience.
My time might may have been short in Morehead, but it will have a lasting impression on me. Not just from the workshop, but the community of Rowan County. Thank you Mountain Workshops for an inspiring week! Photos taken at the bonfire on our last night together.
The name Sonnia House is inspired by the story of a young girl from Mattru Jong named Adama Sonnah.
Massah Smith returned to her hometown in Sierra Leone in 2012 for a visit and was sickened to learn what had happened to Adama, the daughter of a college friend. Adama had been conceived when her mother was raped during Sierra Leone’s vicious 1991-2002 Civil War. Her mother died a few days after she was born.
As a product of rape, Adama was considered a “cursed one.” She was taken in by her maternal grandmother, but the grandmother had died when Adama was only eight. Having no one to care for her, the child had to sell herself for sex to survive.
In 2012, when Adama was 16, she was abducted by four men who brutally raped and stabbed her. They dumped her in a cemetery and left her for dead. Someone heard her cries for help, and she was taken to a hospital, but she died from the brutal attack.
During her visit to Sierra Leone in late 2012, she learned that Adama had been murdered. Massah suddenly found her calling.
Even though the war had ended years before, Sierra Leone, considered one of the poorest countries in the world, was wracked with poverty. There was no moral compass. Lives didn’t matter. There was no system to care for children in Mattru Jong, like Adama, who have been abandoned or orphaned, or children whose families could not provide for them.
Sadly, Adama’s story was not unique. Often, the burden of poverty and homelessness leads to sexual exploitation, HIV infection, drug abuse and related violence. Massah decided to start a home for children. She’d call it “Sonnia House.”
Before she returned to her home in Alexandria, Virginia, Massah purchased several acres of land in Mattru Jong. She wanted to build a safe place where the children could be housed, fed and provided with school tuition and uniforms. They’d get an elementary and high school education – a foundation for success in life.
Once back home, Massah set about turning her vision into a reality. She recruited a Board of Directors and was granted tax-exempt status from the federal government.
Sonnia House opened its doors on February 5, 2013 with a staff of four. They began caring for 120 children – a number that continues to grow. It costs $94,000 to keep the home going every year. $40 pays for a uniform. $6 for three meals a day. $60 pays for tuition and board.
Success stories are mounting: A young girl recovered from malaria. A teenaged boy received emergency surgery for his acute appendicitis. Two children have recovered from the Ebola virus. The trash heaps are no longer populated with children scrounging for food scraps. There are smiles on young faces where there used to be none.