By Vincent Lyn
My first exposure to children who had just been rescued from slavery was in January 2015 at a shelter in a small town called Winneba, Ghana. Up until that point, like most people, I had only heard about such things but this day would change my life forever. I saw 15 children, from the ages of 5–15, sitting on a stone step. Though hardly an unusual sight in itself, it was the look in these children’s eyes. It was a look I will never forget, a look which was immediately and permanently etched into my memory. The children sat with emotionless, hollowed out, blank stares, like sharks’ eyes, but I could see from the trepidation on their faces, they were the prey. We were told we couldn’t stay long as the children would think we were ‘white slavers’ coming to take them. This idea initially shocked me but in time I would come to understand the trauma these children had experienced.
The shelter I was at was run by the non-profit, Challenging Heights (CH). CH was formed in 2003 and registered in 2005 by Dr. James Kofi Annan to give back to children who faced challenges like his. At the age of six, James was forced to work in the fishing industry along Lake Volta and continued to for seven years as a child slave. He later escaped, put himself through school, became a university graduate, and became a manager at Barclays Bank of Ghana. He is the only educated person out of the 12 children in his family. In 2007, James resigned from his employment with Barclays Bank to dedicate his life to the full-time mission of Challenging Heights — rescuing other child slaves. His mission was personal as he had seen so many of his friends perish in slavery on the Lake after having to endure torture and hazardous hard labor, with little or nothing to eat and no care or concern for their health and safety. The vision of CH is a country in which child trafficking is a thing of the past and children’s rights are celebrated.
Most of these children are not kidnapped by traffickers but are in fact sold to or given to the traffickers by family or extended family to work in the lucrative fishing industry on Ghana’s Lake Volta. While this sounds completely foreign to most, CH research has shown it is the extreme poverty, family separation, and lack of education which are the root causes of this problem. Thus, CH believes education and the economic empowerment of families (including women and children) are the most important factors in eliminating child slavery before it happens. Through its Rescue and Recovery model Challenging Heights is actively involved in the rehabilitation and reintegration of trafficked children from Lake Volta. At CH’s inception, James mobilized children into human rights clubs which took action against forced labor and eventually led to the rescue of eight children involved in child slavery. Later, through generous donations from the Hovde Foundation, Challenging Heights built its first recovery center with the capacity to house, rehabilitate, and care for 65 survivors. Today, Challenging Heights operates on a three-pronged approach to tackle the issue of child slavery — governmental advocacy, economic empowerment, and the rescue, rehabilitation, and reintegration of children. They seek to ensure a secured, protected, and dignified future and life for children and youth by promoting their rights and access to education and healthcare.
Most integral to their goal is the work of the Recovery Center. As the rescue program has grown from eight to 65, so has the programming to support these children — and it continues to grow. This year, through generous support from Buckingham Foundation, Challenging Heights finished construction of a second building at the Recovery Center which will be used for classrooms, an IT center, and 8 new dormitory rooms which can house up to 112 survivors in the recovery program. This addition brings the total number of children CH is able to rehabilitate and educate to 176 and another step closer to making their vision a reality.
The other key program component — economic empowerment — is facilitated largely through their Women’s Economic Empowerment Program (WEEP) and the Youth Empowerment Program (YEP). WEEP is designed to increase family economic stability and eliminate the likelihood of children being trafficked to work on the Lake. CH has provided a communal cold store facility and smokehouses for women from these at-risk communities to use free of charge. Here, they are able to store and smoke fish to then sell during economically slow, off-season. The aim of the YEP is to provide youth with a solid foundation in a variety of career skills such as sewing, catering, digital installation, barbering, beauty care, driving, phone repair and hopefully even worldwide marketing of their own locally made products. YEP provides participants with additional skills and opens further economic possibilities for them and their communities. These vocational programs enable young people to break the cycle of poverty which can lead to trafficking.
But the work Challenging Heights does is costly and funding these vital programs is difficult. The persistent work of the Grants Team as well as the fundraising efforts of the Founder, James, is a never-ending job. The entire staff at CH are a group of dedicated individuals who are not only passionate about this work but work long hours with little pay, because they believe the money CH receives from donors should go directly to the rescue, recovery, and reintegration of survivors.
James, himself, has a heart of gold and I am very blessed to call him my friend. It’s because of this I have travelled to Ghana many times these past five years trying to help in any way I can — on rescues of child slaves, bringing supplies or by fundraising. In October 2015 I gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in NYC, in which I donated all CD sales to Challenging Heights. James made a special guest appearance to open the concert with an impassioned speech. I can tell you there wasn’t a dry eye in the concert hall that evening.
For further information on Challenging Heights go to: https://challengingheights.org/
Every child deserves a childhood.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts