When Ebola hit Sierra Leone, the village of Bongema was devastated for a second time after the civil war. Children couldn’t play outside, go to school or touch their loved ones. Spirits were crushed and the health of the community was dwindling. Desperate not to return to their condition of dependence, casting director and founder of Shine On Sierra Leone, Tiffany Pearsons reminded local leaders that the power comes from within the community to restore mental and physical health. The people of Bongema did not receive sufficient aid from outside organizations. But after utilizing their local resources, the village managed to thrive greater than they had before the virus.
Persons believes that this is a testament of real transformation.
Shine On Sierra Leone (SOSL) is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering the people of the country through education of self. Persons believes the savior mentality is outdated and ineffective. Instead, she says community partnerships and self-journeying are more powerful ways to increase spiritual, mental and communal wealth.
In 2006, Persons was inspired to produce a documentary about the burgeoning issues the country was facing post civil war surrounding the infamous diamond mining industry. During her three-month stay, she stumbled upon Bongema, a community of a few thousand people where despair robbed the locals of a viable future. Eager to relieve the pain, Persons focus shifted and she began to give all she had to this ancestral land.
At the center of this village was a dilapidated building without a roof that served as a school. Despite its condition and torrential rains, every morning, hundreds of children would emerge from their homes wearing uniforms to file inside to receive lessons from a couple of volunteer teachers. Heart broken but inspired, Persons stepped into action and recruited some of her influential friends, including Sebastian Copeland to raise $5,000 for the non-profit’s first project, rebuilding the school.
With the new building, there was hope, but not the kind that inspired the community to be self-sustaining. Children were still begging, chasing after cars and asking outsiders for handouts, saying, “White man, white man, give me money.” Something needed to change.
“When I started SOSL, I started to look around me and say I’m not really living the life I want to live, but why am I not living the life I want to live. I tried the idea of literally shifting my mindset by not focusing on the things I didn’t want and only focusing on what I wanted,” she says. “My daily mantra was about feeling good. When I became happy for the sake of being happy everything shifted.”
She went from being a broke single mother, struggling to make ends meet to becoming one of the industry’s top casting directors with a blossoming business. Her conditions changed because her mind changed. She recognized she had the power to shift her reality. Persons wanted to liberate her Sierra Leonean family with this new knowledge.
“We want to reconnect people to the power they have within themselves,” Persons declares.
The non-profit went from being a charity to a partnership by incorporating local workers to get the job done.
While the school, Muddy Lotus, provides free education and needed resources for the village, SOSL created a new curriculum that focuses on holistic education, teaching children to love from the inside out. With daily affirmations and programs about self worth, the children’s countenances have brightened and they stand a little taller. Their energy is electric, energizing change throughout the village.
Within five years, the school went from being ranked 736 out of 736 to number 5 in the region. Not only did test scores improve, but also locals started to glean to their individual strength to improve their collective condition.
Prior to finding her calling, Persons was in search of something fulfilling. She’s passionate about her work in Sierra Leone, but is good at what she does in the entertainment world. She didn’t expect it, but with both she’s discovered a balance.
“Do not condemn what you’re doing (because it) is such a beautiful and important piece of what you are set to do in your life,” she advises those searching for a more purposeful path. “Honor all the knowledge you’ve gained. It’s not of not. It’s really about taking your time and being authentic with the people around you. If (you) focus on the things that bring joy, things will come into place.”
Persons runs a 10-year-old casting company specializing in bringing everyday people to the screen. Some of her clients include Kellog’s, Johnson and Johnson Baby and Best Buy. She’s been named Woman of the World by the United Nations and continues to be recognized for her work in both the entertainment industry and the non-profit world.
To learn more about SOSL, visit www.shineonesierraleone.org.