Operation Classroom, Inc. (OCI), has its roots in Indiana. The program began in 1987 over a cup of coffee and was led by John Shettle of Orestes and Bob Bowman of New Castle, newly-elected lay leaders of the North and South Indiana Conferences, as a plan to upgrade secondary education in United Methodist schools in partnership with the Liberia and Sierra Leone Annual Conferences and the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.
Ten schools were selected for upgrading by the Liberia and Sierra Leone Annual Conferences. The program had as its mission:
- To upgrade UMC secondary education in Liberia and Sierra Leone,
- To be an avenue of renewal for The United Methodist Church, and
- To provide hands-on mission experiences for United Methodists.
A civil war erupted in Liberia in 1989, causing people to flee and schools to close. OC responded to the new challenges by opening refugee schools in Ivory Coast and in Guinea. In 1991 the war spilled over into Sierra Leone. Operation Classroom, now Operation Classroom, Inc. (OCI), continued to work in those schools that remained open and eventually opened a refugee school in Guinea. Surprisingly, despite the wars, OCI was able to assist in the construction of four schools in Liberia and one in Sierra Leone.
Thousands of residents were displaced or became refugees. OCI responded to the requests of the bishops of both Liberia and Sierra Leone to provide clothing and basic supplies to assist those who were in desperate circumstances.
The bishops also asked if OCI could assist in meeting the mounting medical crises brought on by the wars. OCI responded by beginning a partnership with United Methodist-related Ganta Hospital in Liberia and Kissy Clinic in Freetown, Sierra Leone, putting this new medical component of the program under the title of Operation Doctor.
Trauma of war
The Sierra Leone and Liberian Conferences asked OCI in 1994 to help train West Africans and to counsel those suffering from war trauma. Thus, WATTS (West Africa Trauma Training Seminars) was born. Since that time more than 150 Liberians and 75 Sierra Leoneans have received a basic understanding of counseling, and in the process have learned how to deal with their own trauma.
Operation Classroom continued its partnership throughout the years of civil war, by shipping container loads of supplies, providing support for the schools and hospitals, and working with displaced refugees and ex-combatants. OCI was one of the few nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and mission agencies that stayed involved during the entire time of war.
Following the war, OCI has continued its work with both the schools and hospitals. Since a number of other United Methodist conferences have become partners with Ganta Hospital in Liberia, OCI has put more focus on Sierra Leone’s Kissy Clinic (now Kissy United Methodist General Hospital). In the 10 years since the war ended, construction has been almost continuous. With grant funding from American Social Health Association (ASH), USAID and the United Methodist Committee on Relief and others (a total approaching 1 million dollars), a new 48-bed Maternal and Child Health Center is nearing completion, and Kissy becomes the preeminent obstetric, gynecological and pediatric hospital in West Africa. In addition, a comprehensive continuing education and management training program has been developed.
Learning a trade
Vocational education has always been a priority for OCI, which is presently partnering with both West African Annual Conferences in developing a viable vocational program in the schools.
State of mission
Currently, OCI partners has more than 20 schools (both elementary and secondary), two hospitals and several clinics. It also supports hundreds and hundreds of students with work-study grants. In the 25 years since its inception, OCI has shipped almost 90 containers to West Africa – typically sending at least two containers a year to each country.
Other conferences, including the Minnesota, Holston (Tennessee) and Rocky Mountain conferences, have joined Operation Classroom, Inc., in this partnership. Churches and individuals from 42 states have participated – in various ways – in this program. OCI continues to partner with UMCOR and United Methodist Women in meeting their common mission goals.
Operation Classroom, Inc. projects are all listed as General Advance Specials of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.
Robert Coolman serves as president and CEO of Operation Classroom, Inc., and is based in Valparaiso, Ind. For more information, visit www.operationclassroom.org.
Retiring Joe and Carolyn Wagner directed Operation Classroom for 25 years.
Photo courtesy Robert Coolman
Patients wait outside Kissy Hospital in Freetown, Sierra Leone. During the past 25 years, Hoosier United Methodists assisted Kissy in moving from a clinic to a hospital.
Photo courtesy First UMC Valparaiso
Volunteers from First United Methodist Church of Valparaiso, served the children of this Sierra Leone school during their 2008 mission trip. Several Indiana churches go on similar mission trips each year to both Sierra Leone and Liberia.