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Western New York volunteers gather to remember project in Sierra Leone

It was the summer of ’69 when Amherst High School teacher Reed Taylor led a team of college students to a remote West African village in Sierra Leone to build a jungle hospital – brick by brick – from the ground up.

The volunteers were sponsored by Operation Crossroads Africa to work with young Africans at the grass-roots level, and they built a 48-room hospital.

That hospital was destroyed during a civil war that rocked Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, but the bridges of friendship endured.

On Saturday, Taylor gathered many of the former volunteers – who today are 65 or older – at his home in Canterbury Woods, Amherst, to recall their mission, the country and the determined people who called it home.

“Why now?” Taylor said. “I’m 77, and I do not want to leave this earth without putting on record what we did. I think we made a difference in Africa, and I know Africa made a difference in our lives. We have a story to tell, and I’m really antsy to tell that story.”

Some of their story is told through home movies Taylor shot during that long-ago summer, using his father’s 1935 8mm camera. The tape was recently combined with amateur audio and digitized into a 30-minute DVD shown during the reception.

“We lived close,” Taylor recalled. “It was starry-eyed idealism converted into action.”

Among those attending Saturday’s event were James Johnson, director of the Robert Jackson Center in Jamestown; Willis Logan, president of the New York City-based Operation Crossroads Africa; and Claude Welch, a University at Buffalo professor.

“It’s an amazing feeling to talk about this and show each other pictures from way back then,” said Dr. Douglas MacIntosh, 65, a semiretired physician from Peterborough, Ont., who attended the reunion.

MacIntosh was a 21-year-old University of Toronto student when he went to Sierra Leone.

He has not seen any of the 13 others in the group since 1969, though they sent cards to each other for a few years.

“We haven’t stayed in touch,” he said. “Those contacts faded. And we lived in different parts of North America. I have not seen anybody.

“It’s incredible,” MacIntosh said Saturday. “I am so glad it’s happening. I wouldn’t want to die without this chance to compare notes a whole lifetime later.”

The cultural bridges the volunteers built as they befriended each other and the villagers prepared them to build cultural bridges with people from different races and backgrounds back home upon their return, he said.

Operation Crossroads Africa was established in 1958 by a Harlem pastor, the Rev. Dr. James H. Robinson. President John F. Kennedy called Operation Crossroads the “progenitor of the Peace Corps,” and it has sent more than 11,000 volunteers over the last 54 summers to more than 40 African countries, 12 Caribbean countries and Brazil to pursue humanitarian goals.

Taylor was 34 and studying for his doctorate in American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, where he saw a leaflet seeking volunteers for Operation Crossroads. Taylor, a native of Wisconsin and 1957 graduate of Yale University, had accepted a teaching post at Amherst High School in 1963. He stayed on through 1990, when he moved to Nichols School for five years.

When Taylor decided to lead the 14-member team to Africa, he continued a hospital project spearheaded by Dr. B.M. Kobba, a Sierra Leone native who was inspired by famed philosopher and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer.

Kobba was treating 100 patients daily in a mud hut and performing night surgeries by the light of kerosene lamps. The closest hospital was more than two hours away.

Upon arrival, Taylor’s team was bolstered by five Africans and scores of residents from the village of Mobai, where the hospital was built. It took two years to complete the project. Taylor’s team was in Africa for seven weeks.

“We provided moral support and a little sweat equity,” Taylor said. “We dug 1,800 feet of trenches, filled the trenches with rocks to lay the foundation, and then we made the bricks.”

It was just before the rainy season, and water was scarce, Taylor recalled. In 90-degree temperatures, the men and women made bricks, dug trenches and collected rainwater to drink from the roof of the dwelling they lived in.

“We called it shingle tea,” Taylor noted. “After boiling and straining it, we had about 30 gallons, and that would last us for four or five days.”

As group leader, Taylor had taken a three-day preparatory course at Rutgers University, where he learned the importance of adding protein to a native diet based on rice and boiled banana leaves. He went shopping for canned oatmeal and purchased enough toilet paper to supply 19 people for seven weeks.

“If you can imagine no rain for days,” Taylor said. “We didn’t shave or brush our teeth very much. The water from the wells in the village was contaminated. You wouldn’t dare go barefoot.”

One night, Taylor recalled a midnight downpour that woke the sleeping volunteers who grabbed soap and headed outside for a moonlight shower. The memories built over almost two months, he said, have lasted four decades.

The hospital did not, however.

Mobai was attacked and destroyed April 12, 1991, by rebels from the Liberian border area – 15 miles away.

On Saturday, Sanusi Kamara, a 23-year-old University at Buffalo student from Sierra Leone, spread a more positive message about his homeland.

“We’re starting to see now that Sierra Leone is an up-and-coming country after several years of civil war,” Kamara said. “Today, Sierra Leone is coming back.”

Kamara left his homeland in 2008 and is pursuing an undergraduate degree in pharmaceutical science.

Kamara accepted Taylor’s invitation to attend the reunion and meet those who volunteered to help his country long before Kamara was born.

“It’s really great there are people who went and helped,” Kamara said.

Also attending the event Saturday were Taylor’s daughters, from Cincinnati and Hartford, Conn., and a couple of grandchildren, too.

“I’m very involved in alerting people to volunteer service, which is increasingly less interesting for the younger generation,” Taylor said. “We were ambassadors for American culture and idealism. We didn’t have to go over in 1969. We went over and displayed our skills as human beings.”