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50 years of friendship across continents, poverty, and war

This next story is about an epic friendship between a white, 76-year-old Grand Rapids teacher, and the driven Liberian boy she inspired 50 years ago when she was a young Peace Corps volunteer.

Their bond has survived hunger, poverty, and a brutal civil war. And it’s created ripples across Liberia, leading to the country’s first school for social workers . Now, it’s reuniting both friends back here in Michigan.

Way back in the day where this story begins, President Kennedy rolls out the Peace Corps in the early 60’s, and in Grand Rapids, a 25-year-old Jackie Ladwein is hooked. She gets two years of teaching under her belt just so she’ll be extra prepared, and then, gets her Peace Corps assignment: Liberia.  

“Well, I had to go to an encyclopedia to find Liberia where Liberia was!” Jackie says. In Liberia’s favor: gorgeous coasts, lush forest, and English speakers. But really, it was never a hard call, she says: “I wanted to go [anywhere] as soon as I heard Kennedy speak.”

Now picture it: here comes this tiny blonde lady from Michigan, into your rural Liberian village.

And for Joseph Kpukuyou, everything changes. He’s nine-years-old, his dad’s gone, his family’s poor, so he’s hungry and stunted, and to top it off his teachers are pushing him around.  “They were kinda rough, you know, about teaching. And then when Jackie came in, she was more friendly and she would make the concept much more simple. And I was like, wow! This is the first time in my life this lady’s so friendly.”

Even more amazing: Jackie invited all 25 of her students to come over to her small home in the village when school was done. She shared her food and packed the place with books.  “They all hung around the house!  I had a library in there with books that people would send from the United States. And I put a Kerosene lamp in there that people could study.”

Joseph spent more and more of his time in that rudimentary library.  “That’s how we became closer, and closer, and closer, until we became friends,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, he was hitting the books, realizing education could be his best route out of poverty. “I knew if I didn’t do well in school, that was my last chance.”

Even after Jackie completed her Peace Corps assignment, she returned to Liberia several times over the years to visit Joseph. Each time, Joseph would show her his mounting accomplishments: his rapidly improving English, his wife and family, even his post as the village school vice principal.

Without fail, Jackie would ask one question: what’s next, Joseph? She pushed him towards the college entrance exam, even though university was far away in the capital and cost far too much for a vice principal’s salary. When he was accepted, she helped him pay his way.

Then, the war changed everything. For nearly 14 years, one of the bloodiest civil wars in Africa’s history tore through Liberia. Jackie didn’t know if Joseph was dead or alive, until finally, the fighting ended and one of his letters reached her in Michigan. 

“I was just so glad he was still alive. It was amazing,” Jackie says, tearing up even now.

But the war left so much trauma in Liberia – the torture, the rape, the child soldiers. Liberia needed to heal, and for that, they needed counselors and social workers.

Jackie pushed Joseph to go back to school, one last time, so he could head up the first social work department in the country.

And one night, he started thinking – after all these years, how could he ever repay his teacher?  “So one day I was lying on my back just thinking, wow, Jackie has done so much for me, how can I pay it back?” he says. “And I don’t have money! So I just began praying, and said, God, give me a vision, so that Jackie’s name will not be lost in Liberia. Her name will remain forever. So I said, maybe I could try a school.”

That school, the Jackie Ladwein School, is now under construction in rural Monrovia.

“I keep arguing with him about the name!” Jackie says. She’s clearly touched, both laughing and crying as she Joseph argues with her.  

“That’s the name, Jackie! It will never be changed.”

Clealry, Jackie’s going lose this battle, because Joseph is determined to keep her name alive in Liberia.

He’s in Michigan now for the first time ever, helping Calvin College send social work students to his country as part of an exchange program.

This trip comes 50 years after Jackie and Joe first met, a tribute to a friendship that plays out in their lives, and now the lives of many students in two countries. 

*This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. You can share your story here.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.