With her shy smile and soft voice, Kassy Staples can easily pass for a typical 10-year-old.
But there is nothing typical about the daughter of Travis Staples of Phoenix. The fifth-grader flew unaccompanied to Sierra Leone in west Africa — think "Blood Diamond" — where she was on a mission last month.
After being warmly greeted in Freetown by her grandmother, midwife Sudy Storm of Ashland, Kassy undertook a two-day trip by bus and motorbike with Storm to eventually reach the remote village of Kambama. Storm had arrived two months earlier in the area to train traditional midwives.
Kassy told villagers gathered in the school that she was there after learning from her grandmother about the lack of educational materials in the mud-walled school.
"These supplies were sent to you by my family and friends in America because we all care about the future of your children," she told them. "So from my village to yours we present you with these educational materials as a step toward a better future through education."
With that, she unloaded supplies that filled two suitcases as part of the Sukuli Project, a volunteer program she created to improve education in remote portions of Africa. Sukuli means "school" in Mende, the language spoken in the region.
Grandmother and granddaughter returned to the Rogue Valley Sept. 22.
"Kassy told me last fall she wanted to go and help with the schools," said Storm, 55, a 1970 graduate of Medford Senior High School who has been to Africa five times to teach midwifery. "She started a fundraiser and gathered school supplies for two village schools."
It was Kassy's first flight. Flying to San Francisco without an escort to Freetown, including a six-hour layover in London, didn't faze her, Storm said.
"She missed her daddy, of course — they are very close," Storm said. "But she is a remarkable young person. She lived with people she had never met before. The food was different. The culture was different. Yet she did very well."
Since 1999, her grandmother has been making trips to Africa to educate indigenous people about midwifery. Storm's husband, Will, an accomplished military artist, accompanied her on one trip to Senegal. Sudy Storm was invited to Sierra Leone to help train traditional midwives in a remote region near the Liberian border. Sierra Leone has the highest rates of infant and maternal morbidity and mortality in the world, she noted.
During Kassy's stay, one village chief gave her the name of Kadiatu, meaning "promising woman."
Both grandmother and granddaughter were adopted into the family of Sulaiman and Isha Koroma. Sulaiman Koroma is head of a medical post where there is no doctor even though it serves 17 villages and some 12,000 people.
During an earlier trip to the post, Storm became the head of the clinic when Koroma had to leave temporarily.
"I was manning the health post in Pellie (village) at about 10 o'clock at night — the generator was out and it was dark," she said of an earlier trip. "They brought in a man with a wound in his leg."
The cut was about a foot long and deep, she recalled.
"I had brought sutures with me," she said of sutures sometimes needed after a birth. "So I sutured that man by flashlight. You do what you have to do."
During her stay, Kassy also volunteered at the clinic.
"She sat up all night with us when we had laboring women and it was amazing to see how the laboring mothers responded to her touch and comfort," Storm said.
"I'm going to be a midwife," Kassy interjected. "Either that or a medical doctor. I really like medicine."
She quickly discovered that life in a village in Sierra Leone is far different from her life back in Phoenix. She learned to carry water from the well on her head, wash laundry in the river, cook over a wood fire, care for young children and teach them songs and dances that she had learned back in Oregon.
"There was no TV, no video games," her grandmother observed.
"I managed it, living with no cell service," Kassy acknowledged.
But there were also times when they had to ration their rice to stretch their meals. At one point, Storm notified project supporters back in Oregon that a village of some 200 people faced starvation because they were running out of rice. The supporters donated funds to buy rice for the villagers, who have since planted enough rice to last them into next year.
Then there were the bugs.
"I was eaten alive," Kassy said. "I was covered by mosquito bites. I would not sleep under a mosquito net and I would wake up and my legs would be covered with mosquitoes. But I never got malaria."
She also learned not to be picky when it came to eating.
"My Auntie Isha spoiled me — we ate whatever they had," she said. "I used to be a picky eater but not anymore."
The villagers gave Kassy several chickens.
"And this was their hunger time," Storm said. "They didn't have much to share. But they consider it an insult if they don't offer a stranger a gift."
In turn, Kassy left most of her clothes with Eena, a newfound friend about her age who lives in one of the villages.
"They will be lifelong friends," her grandmother said.
Kassy hopes to return to Sierra Leone to help build schools in four villages. Storm estimates it will cost up to $25,000 per school, including building, supplying it with desks and books and paying teachers' salaries for five years.
Storm plans to return to continue her midwife work in March, staying there for up to six months.
"A hundred percent of everything donated to our project, whether it be money or school supplies, goes to the project," Storm said. "There is no administrative costs. Nobody gets a salary."
For more information on the project, including how to help, check out www.sukuliproject.org.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
She's not your average fifth-grader