If you were to look up Liberia on Wikitravel, you will find a red WARNING box that says "the US State Department strongly urges American citizens to consider the risks of traveling to Liberia." And before you depart, you need seven shots — for yellow fever, typhoid, Hep A, polio, meningitis, tetanus, and influenza. More than once, I thought taking a vacation to a a nation that was recovering from civil war was pretty nuts.

But, I focused on the positive. One, Liberia is rapidly recovering under the leadership of the first woman president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Two, we would be visiting orphans and abandoned children supported by the MacDella Cooper Foundation in the capital, Monrovia. My college friend Genevieve Faust was joining me, shooting a documentary as I took photos and blogged. And we were under the protection of MacDella Cooper, known to her admirers as "Liberia's Angel."

Who is MacDella Cooper?

This 30-year-old former model is a Liberian refugee, who escaped Liberia at age 13, when civil war broke out. During the war, an estimated 90% of women were sexually or physically abused. Three out of four were raped. (This according to a 2005 World Health Organization study cited on the International Rescue Commission's web site). Thankfully, MacDella wasn't one of them, but her survival was still a struggle, given the bullets flying overhead, child soldiers wielding machetes and guns, and babies left on the roadside to die.

When Charles Taylor's rebel forces ransacked Monrovia, MacDella and her brothers trekked to a refugee camp in the neighboring Ivory Coast. She met an American woman there who gathered her sorority sisters' support to help MacDella get to the US. She attended high school in Newark, New Jersey, got a full ride to college, and worked her way up the New York City social ladder interning for the New York Film Festival and landing her first job at Ralph Lauren. I'm fascinated by people who balance extremes, and here is a woman who saw the most ghastly sights as a teen, yet went on to live an incredibly glamorous life. The hope that gives the world today, especially in the Middle East, is tremendous.

I met MacDella through my college professor — like me, MacDella had attended The College of New Jersey. She became the subject for my senior journalism project. Through a series of interviews with MacDella, I pulled out the details of her life story. I learned that she listened to Michael Bolton on her Walkman to calm herself during the war. I learned that for a week in college, she suffered a sudden episode of post-traumatic stress disorder, where she just shut herself inside her dorm room and curled under the bed sheets. Most importantly, I learned she had started a namesake foundation in 2004, after the civil war had ended, to send barrels of supplies to Liberians. From there, she decided to focus on children. Her foundation renovated orphanages and raised money to cover school tuition, since education is not free.

To finance these projects, MacDella leverages her friendships with New York City's wealthiest, inviting them and their corporations to exquisite fund-raising galas. I've seen MacDella in action at these events — impeccably dressed in a black Ralph Lauren dress, a shawl often draped over her arms as she holds a wine glass in one hand, wearing megawatt jewels in her ears and heels that sink into the plush carpet. She greets her guests with a kiss on the cheek and a "how are you?" that expects a genuine answer, not simply small talk. This image kept coming back to me in Liberia, when I'd see MacDella mingle with the poorest Liberians. Instead of a snazzy hotel, she was standing outside their shacks, but she related to them in a way that was equally caring, graceful, and natural.

Check out this video I shot of her visiting a child she sponsors on DuPort Road:


Life in Liberia — Up Close at the Orphanage
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