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It Takes a Village: How One Community Is Raising a Generation of Ebola Orphans

Branche with the precocious Marie
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The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has subsided, but there is still much work to be done in the aftermath of the crisis—both on the healthcare and the humanitarian front.

Although another Ebola outbreak is highly likely, we remain committed to our work on a prime-boost vaccine that has the potential to help prevent another epidemic.

On the humanitarian front, the recent outbreak left communities and families devastated and in need of support—which is how I came to know Marie.

She is 4 years old, and I will never forget her.

A Life-Affirming Homecoming

I left Sierra Leone almost 40 years ago. For the past 25 years, I have been working as a clinical researcher, and these days, I travel to the country as a trial manager for the Ebola vaccine clinical trial. Since 2014, I have also been privileged to be part of the Johnson & Johnson Africa Contributions Committee, enabling me to experience firsthand the impact of the life-changing work done by our partners in communities all across Africa.

It was on one of these trips to Sierra Leone that I met Marie.

She was only 7 months old when she lost both of her parents to Ebola. Her grandmother tried to take care of her, but as the crisis in her community worsened, she had no choice but to bring Marie to the SOS Children’s Village in Freetown, which more than 380 orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children call home.

From what the staff told me, Marie was withdrawn and would not speak to anyone for the first few months. But you couldn’t tell that if you met this wonderful young child today.
The day I visited the SOS Village, all of the children had lined up to welcome me. As I approached, Marie just ran into my arms!

I picked her up and she stayed with me for much of my visit. It was the most joyful homecoming I could have ever imagined. The smile on her face was so bright, and I could see the happiness she brings to everyone in the village.

Why It Really Does Take a Village

In that moment, I could also imagine the life Marie has ahead of her and the amazing things she will be able to do with the support she has at the SOS Children’s Village. The SOS “mothers” and “aunts” who worked with her for months to get her to smile and help her find her voice again will make sure she grows up healthy and loved.

I asked the children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And one of them said, “President of the country!” I imagine these children growing up to be doctors and lawyers and scientists and engineers … and, yes, even presidents.

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An SOS Children’s Village dance performance Photo Credit: SOS Children’s Village

I also met Alimatu Koroma, a former SOS beneficiary who now works as the communications director at the SOS Children’s Village in Freetown.

She went to the local school run by SOS, and after completing her university studies, came back to work in the village. She could have just walked away—but she came back to help other children.

Her amazing story shows how much we can do, how far we can go in life, when we help and support each other.

For more than 20 years, Johnson & Johnson has supported SOS Children’s Villages initiatives in Africa and around the world. I was immensely proud to represent the work being done by the company—from the Ebola vaccine program to helping train doctors and nurses. But even more, the trip was very humbling.

As Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia recover from the aftermath of the devastating tragedy of the Ebola outbreak that took thousands and thousands of lives, the real heroes are the mothers and aunts I met at the SOS Children’s Village. They have the difficult task of raising a devastated generation of orphaned children into hopeful people capable of uplifting their communities.

Olatunde Branche, Ph.D., is an Associate Director for Janssen Pharmaceuticals in the infectious disease and vaccine therapeutic area.

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