Imagine Liberian orphans who so greatly value the opportunity to learn, they walk more than two hours to get to the nearest high school. Five hours total on foot. Now imagine their reaction when Seth Bunch, a UNCG freshman at the time, stood on a platform and promised to build them their own school.
That was Christmas 2009. Seth was coming to the end of a three week visit – his first ever – to the Liberian orphanage he had learned about only five months prior. His best friend and mentor, youth pastor Josh Robertson, had recently returned from the area.
“Looking at videos and pictures of the way these children lived…it was the first thing in my life that broke my heart. I knew I needed to do something to help those kids.”
He emptied his savings, humbly accepted a few donations, and made it to the war-torn village by mid-December. “It ended up being one of the hardest, most heartbreaking things in my life. It was wonderful, and I loved those kids. I smiled all the time I was around them. But when they would go to bed, I would shut my door, and it would hit me. It was so hard to see how they were living – walking all that way to school, eating nothing but a small bowl of rice. Their bodies were bones and rib cages. I didn’t see the anger coming. I was angry at Liberians. Angry at Americans. Shocked by the injustice.”
I was so incredibly happy in Liberia. Heartbroken, yes, but so happy lying on the dirt ground, orphans crawling all over me and playing with my hair, seeing how little they have and knowing we can live on that.
That’s when Seth made his promise to the crowd of children saying their good-byes on his last day. “I got up on the platform and told God, ‘Alright buddy, I hope you have my back because here it comes.’ I announced that I was going to get them a school, and they began cheering, clapping and dancing.”
It wasn’t easy when he returned to America. There was a surprising sense of discomfort with the American lifestyle. “I wanted to dramatically change the way I lived. I think ultimately that’s what this is about – showing that we need to rethink how we live.”
He delivered on his promise quickly. Last October, following benefit concerts and a several-hundred mile bike trek to raise money, Seth had reached his goal of $10,000. “I fell to my knees. I think I smiled for days.”
People had gathered around his cause. Church members had opened their homes during his ride. The UNCG Teaching Fellows program had invited him to speak and connected him with more host families. Art history professor Richard Gantt also followed his fundraising progress in admiration, offering his support and mentorship. Not bad for a kid who says he once lacked the ambition to go to college and whose last bike ride was on his Huffy in the fifth grade.
In July, Seth will return to the Liberian village that has become dear to his heart. And he will help build the school with his own two hands. While he wishes he could stay longer than one month, the art education major realizes he has work to do here.
“It will be hard for me to come back. But I have learned that when I am uncomfortable I am stretching and growing. Plus I want my students to hear my story and maybe even experience Liberia for themselves. That’s how you close the gap.”
If you would like to support Seth’s Promise, visit his blog.
Photography courtesy of Seth Bunch