Talent show shines light on child soldiers

By Jessica Peters, Chilliwack Progress

Kids aren't ready to be soldiers.

They're ready to jump and play, to kick a ball with friends, to dance, to sing, and to learn.

But there are as many as 300,000 children used in conflicts around the world, a common practice in countries embroiled in conflict, including Sierra Leone.

Now that the African country is rebuilding itself, a new organization with Chilliwack roots is eager to help repair some of the damage done to the children there.

The Innocence Lost Foundation was founded by Fazineh Keita and Ava Vanderstarren, who met while studying at Vancouver Film School. Keita was used as a child soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war, and now is a political activist working to bring democratic change with his music.

Vanderstarren is a model and actor, former Miss B.C. winner, and a graduate from G.W. Graham.

As their friendship grew, so did the idea to really make a dramatic difference in Sierra Leone. They founded the Innocence Lost Foundation, and began fundraising. They have plans in place to build a full functioning recreational centre in the Sierra Leone community of Kabala. There, former child soldiers will be able to play soccer, to act, to learn and to be safe.

They'll have access to education, which is not free in their country. They'll also have access to water, computers, and medical resources.

They'll have a chance at a better future.

"The whole thing we're trying to do is to stop the cycle of poverty," Vanderstarren said. And they find that art therapy is one of the best healing tools.

They have traveled to schools through the Vancouver area, teaching students about child soldiers and talking about their plans. So far, they've raised just over $22,000 toward their first major fundraising milestone of $200,000.

Now, they're coming to Chilliwack to launch a new fundraising initiative that will focus directly on the arts.

The Self Xpress Community Talent Show will be held on Nov. 26 at G.W. Graham, with the help of drama teacher and foundation director Damon Fultz.

Auditions for the show are coming up fast, on Sunday, Nov. 8. The show is open to all manners of talent, and all age groups. Chilliwack's GW Graham is the first school to host the community-oriented talent show, and they are looking forward to mimicking its success in other schools in the Lower Mainland.

Vanderstarren stresses that the show is open to all ages, with the idea of coming together as a community to create art.

"This is a way for Chilliwack to express themselves," she says. " Art is very healing."

All of the money raised by Innocence Lost Foundation goes directly to this project, which at completion they estimate will cost $862,000. The first $200,000 is what's necessary to purchase the land and begin building.

When they hit that mark, Vanderstarren says, they'll head to Sierra Leone and break ground.

At full completion, the 3.5 acre compound will include a medical officers, a kitchen and multipurpose room, residences, daycare space, a library and classrooms, fine arts studios, workshops, gymnasium, equipment to use, community gardens, a soccer field, and more.

Vanderstarren knows it's going to be a long road to get there, but she's putting in every spare minute to work on the foundation.

"I still model and act to pay my bills," she says. "But every free moment I'm working on this."

They're also starting to get the word out. Their website contains all the details, including basic building plans, for their project. They've been featured on Shaw TV, and have held a few very successful fundraisers in Vancouver.

They've pulled together a board of directors, and have applied for charitable status. And they can't wait to get to started building Sierra Leone's future.

"It's ready for it," she says. "The war has been over there for a while now, their economy is being rebuilt, but they've had the ebola crisis and there still a lot of poverty and illiteracy."

Kabala is a smaller town in the northeast of the country, and has an illiteracy rate of about 70 to 80 per cent.

"There is a lot of poverty there," she says.

To book an audition time on Nov. 8 for the GW Graham talent show, or to get involved, email innocencelostfoundation@gmail.com.

Source: Chilliwack Progress

Photo: Chilliwack Progress

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