Many people talk about life-changing experiences while they were in college. Likely few, however, can tell a story quite as compelling as Laura Merz, '11.
It's a tale that begins with Merz defying her parents' wishes in order to work for a nonprofit group—Muncie-based Life And Change Experienced through Sport (LACES)—in Liberia, West Africa, and climaxes in a risky trip across the border into Sierra Leone to secure medical help for a badly burned little girl. How the story ends is still unfolding.
"My parents were very against it," recalls Merz of her decision to delay graduation and leave Ball State during spring semester 2011 to accept the four-month assignment in Liberia. Though she never considered herself particularly religious, she says she felt the challenge was something she "was called to do."
"Anyone can watch a PBS special about poor kids in Africa and feel bad about their situation," adds the photojournalism-turned-advertising major. "But until you go and see for yourself, you just can't imagine the reality of it all. I knew it would be harder for me to do after graduation, once I'd started work. So, I made the choice to take the semester off and go."
"Let Me Try"
Arriving in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, in February, Merz spent two weeks getting an orientation from Ball State alumna and LACES founder and program director Seren Frost Fryatt, '02. When Frost then departed to return stateside, Merz, an Honors College student and Presidential Scholar from Ann Arbor, Michigan, was left as the only American working for LACES in the small compound of missionaries and other international relief workers run by another U.S. and faith-based nonprofit, Samaritan's Purse.
To keep her mind occupied and off the idea of being so far away from home, she says she welcomed getting into the field as quickly as possible. In short order, her life would change again and even more dramatically.
"One day I saw this kid with burns on her scalp and forehead," says Merz, recounting her first encounter with a 5-year-old tyke named Alberta. "She had on this little dress and, other than the burns on her face, seemed to be getting along OK. But I could still see something wasn't right."
Talking with the young girl's grandmother, Merz learned that Alberta suffered her burns in an accident with hot cooking oil. The scalding liquid also had splashed a large portion of her upper torso and arm on the left side, and because medical infrastructure in Liberia is "practically zero," the child was left to a painful recovery pretty much on her own. The resulting build-up of scar tissue essentially fused her left arm—the forearm in a semi-raised position—to her chest.
"The grandmother said there really wasn't much they could do," relates Merz, "but I said, 'Let me try.'"
The A Campaign
|Examples of the leather and coconut shell bracelets Merz convinced a Liberian artisan to make as part of the A Campaign. Marketed mostly to friends and family back in the U.S., the bracelets sold out swiftly, raising $1,000 for the effort.|
Living with a host family in Monrovia headed by a local dentist who had an existing relationship with the relief agency Mercy Ships
, Merz found out that one of the organization's floating hospitals was at that time anchored offshore the neighboring country of Sierra Leone. Despite the extremely long odds, she located an e-mail address and sent photos of Alberta to one of the doctors onboard.
"It felt like an eternity waiting for an answer, 'Yes, we can change her life forever' or 'No, we can’t help,'" she says, noting that Internet access and reliability in the region also is extremely suspect. "But we actually got a reply in less than 24 hours. They said, 'If you can get her here, we'll take her.'"
That presented Merz, a self-described "poor college kid," with yet another challenge: how to raise the necessary funds to pay for transportation to Sierra Leone. Another e-mail to David Bond, '10, whom Merz knew from his time as a photojournalism student at Ball State, soon resulted in a website for the A Campaign—A for Alberta—through which the pair communicated the little girl's plight and marketed a batch of 100 leather and coconut shell bracelets that Merz had persuaded a local artisan to produce for the cause. Going for $10 each, mostly to family and friends back in the U.S., the bracelets sold out swiftly, reaping the effort $1,000.
The final link in the chain of events was getting Alberta to the hospital ship. Again, Merz took the lead. In the company of two Liberian friends and co-workers from LACES, she crossed the border—without a visa—and managed to deliver the child and her grandmother to trusted escorts on the Sierra Leone side who completed the journey. That was the easy part.
"Heading back we got stopped. The guards were pretty agitated that we didn't have any papers," says Merz, who could follow the exchange only in terms of the rising volume of voices (in Sierra Leone, speaking Creole). "I was never actually in fear for my life … I don't think … but I did begin to worry about where I'd be sleeping that night and whether they might put us all in jail."
After much back-and-forth, however, Merz and her companions were allowed to leave Sierra Leone and return to Liberia. Today, safely back at Ball State, she is quick to dismiss any suggestion that what she did was particularly brave.
"I really believe anyone would have done it," she says. "I mean, under the circumstances, who wouldn't at least try to help a child so much in need?"
Alberta is all smiles as she celebrates her successful surgery with some of the medical staff aboard the Africa Mercy.
To journalism professor Michael Hanley, Merz's adviser for her Honors College thesis (that will focus largely on her work on the A Campaign), the "incredible story" of Alberta's rescue and successful surgery goes to heart of what President Jo Ann M. Gora describes regularly as a principal goal of Ball State's brand of immersive learning—inspiring students to find real-world solutions to real-world problems.
"Is there any better example?" asks Hanley. "The funds that Laura and David raised really helped save this little girl. I've done several immersive learning projects in my time here and I know of nothing else like this. I believe it represents the perfect blend of passion and knowledge that we want our students to have."