Arts & Entertainment, Higher Education, and Nonprofits

Cinema owner supports education in Sierra Leone

October 3, 2014
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John D. Loeks has helped finance schools for children in Sierra Leone through fundraising in West Michigan. Courtesy Schools for Sierra Leone

Seeing education as a way to empower a community, John D. Loeks’ Schools for Sierra Leone campaign is bringing hope to a new generation in Kabala.

During a recent Golden K Kiwanis Club of Grand Rapids meeting at East Congregational United Church of Christ, Celebration Cinema owner John D. Loeks spoke not of bottom-line projections but of an international cause he has been involved with for years: Schools for Sierra Leone.

The organization is a campaign of the Celebration Education fund established by Loeks to provide humanitarian aid through improving education in the Kabala Christian community. Inspiration for the fund arose after Loeks visited his daughter, Emily Loeks, in Sierra Leone with his wife and family friends in 2006, when his son-in-law was conducting graduate research there.

Sierra Leone, a country at one time known for its educational infrastructure, is struggling to rebuild in the wake of an 11-year civil war from 1991 to 2002.

Upon returning to the United States, Loeks said he was motivated to support the construction of a school in Kabala and identified a school in Western Canada already pursuing a similar project.

“We said, ‘Let’s build a school where we have class size limited to 30, certified Christian teachers, and plenty of workbooks for the schools.’ We thought we could make a difference with those reforms,” said Loeks. “When the people of Kabala were asked, ‘What is the number one thing you want’ … quickly, the answer was, ‘We need a good school.’”

Beginning initially with a small contribution and involvement with the construction of the Christian primary school in Kabala, Loeks said those involved with Schools for Sierra Leone really jumped in with the building of a junior secondary school, which became operational in 2011.

“When these children got older and needed what we would call a middle school here — they call it junior secondary school — we led the effort to raise the funds to build it. We practically raised all of the funds to do that,” said Loeks. “Now all of the same children last year were in the first level of the senior secondary or high school and they are crowded into the building, so we decided we would provide the senior secondary school.”

The estimated construction cost of the senior secondary school is $410,000; construction broke ground this past April, according to a Schools for Sierra Leone newsletter. With fundraising efforts beginning roughly two years ago to help finance the building, Loeks said the organization has led a number of initiatives to raise money, such as involving the theater industry.

“The charity of the motion picture industry is called Variety Club, and our local chapter does a Gold Heart sale every year in our theater lobbies, and most of that money has gone to the school, as well,” said Loeks. “Our theater patrons are given the chance to donate to the Gold Heart sale and we also occasionally, if we find an appropriate movie … we use that as a fundraising event and do a movie premiere.”

One such fundraising premiere involved a movie about Nelson Mandela, but the majority of funds are a result of simply asking for donations, said Loeks.

“We do a number of things, but basically we ask. We ask friends. Most of our funds are simply a result of doing what we are doing here today,” said Loeks. “It is going to people and asking if they would be willing to make that contribution.”

With donations ranging from $10 to tens of thousands of dollars from people from all different backgrounds, Loeks said one of the most delightful donations came from a competitor from whom he had purchased two movie theaters.

“When I put out my first request for help on the school project, the president of Cinemark made the first contribution to this cause. My competitor from Texas sent in the first $5,000, actually,” said Loeks. “I have always thought, ‘Here is this competitor, who I sort of took over his position in Grand Rapids, and he still came forward, respecting what we were doing, in making one of the larger contributions to the cause.’”

With the approximate cost of $300 per child per year for a basic education, Loeks said there are additional projects he is engaged with, such as providing $38,000 for solar power at the facility, and investigating high-speed Internet to bring access to a library at an approximate cost of $7,000 to $8,000 each year.

Emily Loeks, board member of the Schools for Sierra Leone, said due to the finite number of students for whom the schools can be responsive, another critical aspect of the work the organization is doing is holding workshops for teachers in the surrounding area.

“Once this senior secondary school is in full operation, the other thing that I think is critical is, it is not an education system in a silo. There are many surrounding schools that are observing what is happening here and encouraged by it and challenged by it,” Emily Loeks said. “One of the things that we are really hopeful for, with the help of Dr. Jo Kuyvenhoven, is pioneering some different ways of teaching.”

Johanna Kuyvenhoven is a professor of education at Calvin College and a board member of Schools for Sierra Leone. She currently is working on writing national curricular materials and guides for the area, and has held teaching workshops introducing storytelling, phonetics and various methods to improve literacy.

“As she is working with this base of teachers, the hope is to really expand outward. She has been hosting these workshops every year — multiple times a year — that invite teachers from many surrounding schools to be taught, to be trained,” Emily Loeks said.

“This school is sort of a hub of innovation and, as it is succeeding and proving its success, it is drawing more teachers from the region. We hope to be able to, in at least some modest ways, support classroom kits that go out to other schools, to support some of that continuing education.”

The organization is also working to develop a strong local school board to take ownership of the academic efforts to provide long-term sustainability.

“Education addresses the Ebola question. Education addresses the clean water issue,” John Loeks said. “When I say that these people are taking this education very seriously and they really want this education, it shows up in other things besides test results. The attendance of the school is 99 percent; people always come to school.”

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