It started with an article in the Sunday paper. Evan Robbins’ six-year old daughter, Maya, was sick, and mom, Lisa, stayed home to comfort and take care of her. So, when Robbins read the article about the small six-year old boy, a child slave, bailing water out of a fishing boat in Ghana with no one to comfort or take care of him, it touched a chord.
“The parallel between my daughter and this six-year old boy was too striking to ignore,” said Robbins.
The fishing industry in Ghana uses child slaves, some as young as four years old, to untangle fishing nets, bail water, paddle boats, and work as domestic slaves. Sleeping on mud floors, the children have little clothing, are underfed, and receive no medical care. The physically demanding work and abuse result in distorted body growth and injury.
A social studies teacher at Metuchen High School, Verona resident, and member of , Robbins decided to bring the plight of these children to his senior class. He shared the article about the small boy and others like him, and began discussing child trafficking, why it exists, and its effects on the children, their families and the culture. According to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, Africa’s children are the world’s poorest, accounting for roughly one-sixth of the child slave trade. Robbins question for his students—what could they do to help these children?
“I wanted to see what my students thought and find a way to help,” added Robbins.
The class embraced the challenge, and Robbins invited former Sudanese slave and human rights activist Simon Deng to speak to the class. Touched by Deng’s visit and the stories of these children, the students quickly came up with ways to raise money, including dinners, dances, walk-a-thons and more. The class raised $7,000.
To ensure that their hard work would make a difference, Robbins contacted the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and met Eric Piazza, then an IOM representative. Established in 1951, one aspect of IOM’s program includes the rescue, rehabilitation and education of trafficked children.
Soon after, Robbins made a trip to Ghana, meeting the children and learning about the poverty-stricken nation. Working together, Robbins and Piazza were able to get the money raised into the right hands, and help IOM rehabilitate the children.
Fast forward six years later. Robbins’ class discussions of child trafficking and the students’ interest in helping have led to a club of sorts dedicated to the effort of raising money to help these children.
“The second year, I brought the same challenge to the students and asked them to set a goal for how much money we could raise,” said Robbins. “We set a goal of $13,000 and actually raised $21,000. The next challenge was to come up with new ways to help.”
After reading the book, Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, the students came up with the idea to build a school, and the charity Breaking the Chain Through Education was born. Now incorporated and awaiting 501(c)3 status, the charity establishes schools in rural villages in exchange for releasing the village’s trafficked children.
Run by Robbins, his family, and students, Breaking the Chain Through Education is currently building a school in Awate Tornu. Scheduled to open this February, the school has already helped to secure the freedom of 19 children, ages 5 to 14.
“In addition to building a school for the local children, the fishermen are educated on the moral issues of slavery, and given equipment, such as a motor for their boat,” added Robbins. “They then pay for the equipment over several years.”
Wife and mom, Lisa Robbins, a reading specialist at the Bradford School in Montclair, has brought her students into the effort as well.
“The class is raising money for the first time this year,” said Robbins. “Next week, the students are hoping to raise funds by selling flowers that they made out of duct tape.”
And, this year, mom, dad, and daughters Maya, now 11, and Arianna, 16, along with several friends, will see firsthand the difference their efforts have made. As the school in Awate Tornu opens, the family and friends are heading to Ghana. The group will visit children previously rescued and spend time with children currently being rehabilitated.
The group is also collecting school supplies, soccer equipment, clothes and other items to bring to Ghana. In addition, they hope to raise additional funds to help complete the school. The cost to build a school and rehabilitate the children is approximately $50,000, and currently, there is a $7,000 funding gap.
When asked if additional fundraising activities are in the works, Evan Robbins replied, “always.” On Feb. 3, local dance companies in Metuchen are performing for the charity, and in April, the group hopes once again to earn Cablevision’s top high school charity award.
To date, Robbins has been involved with the rehabilitation and return of more than 25 children, and expects there to be many more. However, Robbins rewards are local as well.
“One of the great things about the program is that the students go on to do other social action initiatives,” said Robbins. “Some in college, some while still in high school. They are learning that they can make a difference.”
To learn more about or donate to Breaking the Chain Through Education, visit the website.