Del Johnson is a soft-spoken man. It’s hard to imagine him leading his family – wife and two children – into exile from Liberia to Ghana, in the early years of his country’s civil war. His family fled Liberia in 1996, following a violent attack on their family compound which would dramatically alter the course of their lives. Del’s son Andre was just a toddler when a group of rebels loyal to Charles Taylor attacked the Johnson family compound, allegedly to “settle” a matter with Del’s father. During the attack, Andre was thrown against a wall by the rebels, leaving him with irreparable brain damage. Today, Andre doesn’t speak and suffers from cerebral palsy. Like many children from his generation, Andre was disabled by war.
When they lived as refugees in Ghana, Del Johnson and his wife turned to a French physiotherapist, Elise Nerault, who had started a small program to support children with disabilities in the Buduburam refugee camp. The camp, which, at the height of the war in Liberia, was home to over 50,000 refugees, had few educational opportunities, let alone for children with special needs. Working with the parents of children with disabilities, Elise’s program – The Harmony Center – was offered a few afternoons a week, in borrowed classrooms. There, children who had never really had the opportunity to learn, socialize with their peers or experience any kind of learning environment, were given a chance to acquire or improve on basic skills in a safe, nurturing and supporting setting.
Del and Andre Johnson were core members of the Harmony Center – Andre was benefiting greatly from this new exposure to education, and, as a parent, Del was playing a key role at the Center. In 2008, the war in Liberia was over, and the Johnsons returned to their home country. There they found no alternatives or programs for Andre, who was already losing some of his newly acquired skills from the Harmony Center. Del, who I already knew from the Harmony Center in Ghana, approached me in 2009 to start his own center for children with disabilities in Liberia. Del started working towards his dream: the Happy Family Center for Children with Disabilities, a place for children with special needs to thrive and an organization that promotes acceptance and inclusion at the community level
After months of spending a few afternoons a week working with children with disabilities from the community in a borrowed classroom from a local school, a building was rented and retrofitted to house the new Center. When it opened up in December 2009, the Happy Family Center for Children with Disabilities – also known as “HapFam” – began welcoming students on a daily basis.
Del Johnson runs and administers HapFam, which has welcomed up to 15 children at a time in the last few years. But Del’s vision for the Happy Family Center goes beyond service provision: the small organization advocates for the rights of children with disabilities, works toward greater acceptance of disability in society, and supports families and caretakers. The Happy Family Center is situated in the heart of the impoverished Red Light community, in Paynesville, near the capital Monrovia, and Del works every day to promote inclusion at the community level. Organizing workshops, visiting families, talking to community leaders – every day, Del is out there, slowly changing attitudes, helping open the hearts and minds of people who are prejudiced against people with disabilities.
After three years of hard work following Del Johnson’s return from exile, the Happy Family Center is beginning to gain recognition as a model for caring for children with disabilities at the grassroots level in Liberia. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare are paying attention to their efforts, and other NGOs and donors are excited and inspired by the work being done.
Most importantly, he is changing lives for the better. The children who attend the Center daily have shown great improvements. These children’s families and communities are being sensitized, resulting in greater inclusion and a more accepting, caring and united community. Del Johnson is a local champion. His passion for “showing the potential within disability”, as he says, is moving and inspirational. Borne out of a personal tragedy, his efforts on behalf of children with disabilities, who are almost always ostracized and marginalized in Liberian society, are paying off.