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Pittsburgh church helps amputees in Sierra Leone

Amara Lappia, coordinator of the limb outfitting center in Sierra Leone, fits Mustapha Koroma with an artificial leg. The center is supported by The United Methodist Church. A UMNS photo by Christopher Heckert.

By Barry Simmons*
July 2, 2008 | PITTSBURGH (UMNS)

For four years, Mount Lebanon United Methodist Church has sent money to a little-known prosthetics clinic in Sierra Leone to help amputees of the West African nation's civil war.

But it wasn't until a Sunday morning in June when the Pittsburgh congregation began to realize how their gifts have brought new life to people ravaged by violence and abuse.

Bishop George Bashore thanked the church for sending more than $100,000 to the limb outfitting center in the seaside town of Bo. Mount Lebanon is the clinic's only full-time supporter and, without the money, the clinic almost certainly would have closed, he said.

Bashore presented a video produced by United Methodist Communications on the clinic's work.

"It brings tears to your eyes," said church member Sara Mercer. "I don’t think I understood it until I saw that film––seeing those children running around needing limbs and knowing that we were helping to provide them is marvelous."

Workers use common materials like aluminum and wood to fashion the limbs, which hardly resemble the high-tech, brushed titanium prostheses available in developed countries. Here, arms and legs are shorn from sheets of aluminum, hammered and welded into shape, and fitted onto one of several sizes of wooden feet.

Amara Lappia, who runs the clinic, holds up a leg he is working on to show the simplicity of his design. There are just three pieces: a leather strap, an aluminum calf and a wooden foot. Though not showy, they make all the difference in the lives of amputees who hobble into his clinic.

Members of Mount Lebanon United Methodist Church watch a video on the prosthetics ministry in West Africa.
A UMNS photo by Barry Simmons.

"When they have the … artificial leg," he says, "some of them will cry because this is the first time using the leg. They think they are nobody in society. But when we give them the limbs, they think they are part of us."

Most of Lappia’s patients, like Mustapha Koroma, are victims of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. "They captured me," he says, referring to the country’s rebel forces. "I refused to join them, so they decided to amputate my foot."

He is one of thousands in Sierra Leone who have met similar fates. The war’s toll on its young men has been so widespread that the country recently organized a national soccer league just for amputees.

The clinic is funded through the The Advance, the second-mile giving program of The United Methodist Church, which funds mission projects across the globe.

Built in 2003, this project serves about a dozen patients each day but is chronically short of funding. Annual expenses run up to $25,000, but the clinic desperately needs to hire and train more help.

Since 2005, Mount Lebanon’s 1,400-member congregation has donated about $27,000 a year and wants to continue contributing at the same level. After the video, the church announced it would take up a special offering the following Sunday.

"It really gets to you," said member Sheldon Roush. "You want to go there yourself because they could do so much more if they had more funds."

While the video played during the service, several members in the congregation wiped their eyes.

"To hear the stories is one thing," said senior pastor the Rev. Oden Warman, "but to see the stories is another."

*Simmons is a freelance producer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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