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00000176-770f-dc2f-ad76-7f0fae4d0000The West African country of Ghana has one of the continent’s most politically stable governments, a high literacy rate, and is rich in minerals.But there are still pockets of grinding poverty where homes are substandard, the water is unsanitary and schools are nonexistent or in poor condition.WYPR’s Gwendolyn Glenn recently traveled to Ghana on a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists and is filing reports in this series, Ghana at a Glance.Contact Gwendolyn Glenn at [email protected]

African American Businessman Changes Lives in Ghana

Don Felder, a wealthy African American businessman, has paid to build and equip schools in rural areas of Ghana.

He’s given some students scholarships to attend those schools and funded water and other projects throughout the West African country. Much of that work has gone unnoticed by the general public, but his generosity has had a significant impact on the lives of those he’s helped.

There’s Mary Sassa, a tall, soft-spoken woman, who’s about to complete a Master’s degree in human resources next July. Sassa, 28, grew up in the remote town of Obodan, where getting a high school diploma was an unusual accomplishment for a girl, let alone an advanced degree. “I’ve not seen any girl who has achieved where I am now. None have graduated from college,” Sassa said. “Some of them are willing to climb higher, but the money is a problem.”

In Obodan, surrounded by lush mountains and abundant pineapple farms, there was no high school for girls until Felder came along in 2001. At that time, many families, whose incomes were barely a few thousand dollars a year, sent their sons away to school. Their daughters stayed home and helped on the farms.

Felder, the founder of a successful international telecommunications company in New Jersey, contributed about $30,000 to assist Obodan officials in building the Diaspora Girls’ Senior High School, a private boarding school. Sassa was in that first class of students.

Felder and his wife, Denise, met Sassa, the youngest of six children, shortly after she graduated from junior high school. “We met Mary and were just impressed with her drive and ambition to have an education,” Felder said.

Sassa had been offered scholarships to attend high schools in other cities but had to turn them down because she had no place to stay. Her life growing up in Obodan was hard and she had always seen education as the key to lifting her family out of the poverty that held them all back. “My dad married three wives. He had two rooms for my mom. All of us were using one room and one room was for my mom. My dad died when I was three months or so. My mom was there but she was not all that strong.

Sassa’s birth was hard on her mother, who had serious health problems the rest of her life. She died when Sassa was 18. With no father and a mother who was sick most of the time, Sassa and her siblings were “on our own,” she said.

Even when she was in elementary school, Sassa worked long hours for little money to pay her school fees. “I was struggling, working on people's pineapple farms most of the time. I woke up early to go to the farms, work, then come back from school and do the same thing,” she recalled. “On Saturdays and holidays, I was doing that throughout from when I started basic 3 until junior high.”

After she graduated from junior high, Sassa took sewing classes at the local vocational school for a year. That was when Felder arrived in Obodan and put up the money for the school. Sassa remembered those early days. “We had 30-something (girls) and the number kept reducing,” she said. “This is a remote area and people didn't believe it would work. They said you guys are wasting your time, so some dropped out.”

But Sassa never considered dropping out. One of her teachers at Diaspora, LovAmengor, said she was always impressed with Sassa’s drive. “She was an excellent student, very obedient,” Amengor said. “She was always on time and abided by the rules.”

Sassa went on to gain the distinction of becoming the first person from her village to get a high school diploma. Don Felder was proud of her. “She finished with such high grades and she wanted to further her education and attend a university there,” Felder recalled.

Sassa added, “[Don] and his wife, they told me if I secured admission in a school in Ghana, they would sponsor it. I said fine, so I managed to secure admission in a private university in Accra and they did everything. They paid my tuition, everything up to my fourth year. You hardly run across such people. I’m very grateful."

That generosity also extends to Felder’s children. “For my daughter’s 16th birthday, she asked people not to give her any gifts, but if they wanted to give anything, give money to help send a girl to college. We started sending Mary money to attend college. She graduated with honors.”

The Felders are also paying for Sassa’s graduate school tuition. They have given other girls scholarships to attend Diaspora and paid the college tuition of a few other students in Obodan as well. “They make us feel better than we do them, they just don’t know it,” Felder said.

But Felder’s generosity didn’t stop there. It extended to Anyako, a town near Obodan. There, Felder paid most of the $20,000 it cost to build and stock a library at Anlo Awomefia High in 2008. He also sent large shipments of other school supplies. Ghanaian engineer and businessman Michael Attipoe said the Anyako school, before Felder’s donations, was “a very old building made of mud.” “When you enter the classes," he said, "wiring is poor or nonexistent, cracks are in the building, windows are not in good shape, so was the furniture, no computers or bathrooms.”

Attipoe says since Felder made his donations, the rate of students passing tests to be admitted in a Ghanaian university has gone from 5 percent to 30 percent. “That’s very high for a village school. The results compare to what you see in the city schools,” he said.

Because many rural schools and residents often use unsanitary water from local streams used by cattle, Felder also paid to have six water wells dug in the area. Two are at the Diaspora Girls’ Senior High School, and four in other remote communities. In addition, Felder recently arranged to have a well dug at a clinic in the town of Pokrom, near Obodan, where medical workers were using bagged water to treat patients. “I immediately called the company that does the boreholes for us, he looked at it and I called my friends back in the states and they said take care of it. Within a week we had water running in the clinic,” he said.

Some might ask why a busy businessman takes these projects in Ghana. Felder said the answer is simple. “Years ago when I had nothing, I asked the Lord to bless me and let me be a blessing. So the Lord has blessed me and I’m only trying to live up to my end of the deal,” Felder said.

There’s a plaque on the wall at the front of the PTA meeting room at Diaspora. It lists Sassa as one of the school’s pioneers—something Sassa says would not have been possible without the Felder’s help. “It makes me very proud to see it because anyone who comes here will know that I was once here,” she said. “We have programs in this hall, so when I come for the program, I just lift up my head and I see it and I’m cool, I’m cool.”

And Felder, who continues to help fund the installation of water wells in Ghana’s remote areas, says Sassa is one of the brightest students he’s helped.