Cassidy Helps Orphans ‘Touch the Sky’ in Sierra Leone

Walking with some of the girls from Sierre Leone that she is volunteering to assist in acquiring better resources is Katherine Cassidy of Lubec. (Submitted photo)

By Sarah Craighead 



Prior to speaking to the Machias Rotary Club on Tuesday, Jan. 16, the last rotary meeting Katherine Cassidy attended was in Uganda. 

“I had gone to...Uganda to do some leadership lessons with vanilla bean farmers whose vanilla ends up going to Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream,” said Cassidy. “And probably the next Rotary Meeting that I attend will be in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.”

After losing a bid for reelection to the state legislature in November of 2015, Cassidy volunteered with Catholic Relief Services and a U.S. Aid program called Farmers to Farmers. She travelled twice to Kenya and three times to Uganda for three week stints to teach leadership skills to farming cooperatives.  “I just came to love the volunteer life in Africa,” she said.

Her most recent assignment took her to Sierra Leone, a country she didn’t expect to fall in love with. Known for its 11-year civil war [1991-2002] which killed 50,000 and gave the world unforgettable images of child soldiers, life in Sierra Leone is wholly unlike life in the United States.

“I can’t get green leafy vegetables, I can’t get fruit,” she said. If people are lucky enough to get two meals a day, she said, it’s rice topped with some fish sauce. 

The most common mode of transportation is walking, even miles at a time. There is no electricity by day, and what there is at night comes from generators. The heat and humidity can be oppressive.

“You can’t imagine the poverty,” said Cassidy.

Eleven years of civil war left nearly a generation without an education, creating a lack of teachers. But that wasn’t the worst of it. “Ebola happened, and killed 4,000 adults and left 12,000 orphans,” said Cassidy, referring to the 2014 ebola outbreak that spurred global fear and anxiety, even in Maine when a Fort Kent nurse returned from Sierra Leone and disputed the state’s grounds for extended quarantine of health care workers.

But in spite of the challenges, Cassidy fell in love with Sierra Leone. “There are some very, very odd things there, but I’m just so taken,” she said. “I’m not put off by any of this, I’m mesmerized by it.”

Cassidy began teaching in two schools, and became part of an organization working to open an orphanage for girls. The Home of Hope, with room for as many as 40 girls, has not officially opened yet, but Cassidy said that she and its founder/director Emmanuel Kamara are seeking sustainable funding, roughly $25,000 a year. The 30 orphan girls currently enrolled in the program live at the homes of extended family members in the town of Kambia, near the western border with Guinea. 

The group focuses on girls because they are particularly vulnerable in Sierra Leone, where the World Health Organization says female genital mutilation affects 91 percent of all females between the ages of 18 and 49, and the law forbids education to pregnant young women. Even for young women who are not orphans, family resources are used to support the education of the male children.

Cassidy found that girls on their way to her school would stop by her home in the morning saying they were hungry. She shared what she could of her own meager supplies, but wanted to do more.

Turning to Facebook, Cassidy was able to raise $1,500 in donations from friends in Washington County. “So starting Nov. 1 we decided to give the girls food every morning so they didn’t have to go to school hungry,” said Cassidy. A minibus goes to the homes where the orphan girls are currently staying and delivers a round loaf of buttered bread, a hard boiled egg, and a big mug of tea with milk and sugar. “And it’s actually quite a good meal. And what a difference,” said Cassidy.

The name of the nonprofit behind Home of Hope is Touch the Sky Foundation, and Cassidy wrote a verse to say with the girls each day at school (see inset). Cassidy is working on completing 501(c)3 nonprofit status in the Washington County this year with the help of University of Maine at Machias (UMM) professor Dr. Lori Schneider, who will serve as the nonprofit’s president.

UMM is also engaging to try and make an economic difference for the girls. “With Professor Bernie Vinzani's guidance from a distance, we want to introduce papermaking to the orphans and other women's groups,” said Cassidy. “We believe that the craft can become a means for earning livelihoods in a very difficult Sierra Leone economy.”

Those who are interested in helping at this time (without tax-deductible status) may send checks made out to Orphan Girls/Katherine Cassidy, 5 Somersville Avenue, Lubec, ME 04652. Cassidy said they are grateful for all donations. “Understand that even $1 can buy one breakfast for one girl,” she said. 

Katherine Cassidy wrote this verse to say with the girls of Home of Hope each day.

Today I will touch the sky because I am reaching for my dreams

Today I will stand tall and strong because I am a special young woman

Today I will reach out to help others because I am valued and loved

Today I will give back because we are stronger together.

Together we will touch the sky.