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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
WEST GREENWICH â€“ Six years ago, Safiatu Bah lived in the town of Kabala in Sierra Leone and she was dying.
Diagnosed with a hole in her heart and two leaky valves, she had little chance of survival because her African nation lacked the equipment and facilities to provide life-saving surgery.
Here in America, a world away, congregants of the North Kingstown United Methodist Church learned of her plight through members Daniel and Dorcas Kamanda, serving as missionaries in Sierra Leone.
Dorcas, a native of that country, operated a clinic in a cement-block shed with a giant awning where she had treated 10,000 people using donated medicine and other supplies.
Amid her enormous patient load, one case was outstanding. She wrote to her church, saying â€śWe found this little girl.â€ť
Flash forward to a quiet farm on Fry Pond Road in West Greenwich on a chilly autumn morning in early November 2011. It is the home of Jeff and Lisa Dallas, who own a software company, and their five daughters: twins Abbey and Sammy, 17; Carly, 14; Grace, 10; and Safiatu, 16.
The Dallasâ€™ two grown sons, Matthew and Andrew, live in the Washington, D.C. area.
Safiatu â€“ her family calls her â€śSafiâ€ť â€“ is a beautiful young woman who attends Exeter-West Greenwich Junior High School where her favorite subject is geography.
An eighth grader, sheâ€™s president of the student council, participates in Youth to Youth, Students Against Destructive Decisions and also studies dance.
Safiatu has been taking ballet and freestyle classes and plans to learn hip-hop.
Her goal, she says, is to become a wedding planner after first studying business at Bryant University.
Although she still takes English as a Second Language â€“ â€śI stumble a littleâ€ť â€“ her mom notes that the written word is Safi's only real challenge.
â€śSheâ€™s been in mainstream education for a long time; sheâ€™s motivated on her own.â€ť
Besides her Rhode Island siblings, Safiatu has two biological sisters in Sierra Leone; photos are sent back to Safi's hometown â€śdocumenting her life here,â€ť says Lisa.
The Dallas girls agree that, as a sister, Safiatu is â€śjust like everyone else.â€ť
This story of an entire church community pulling together to save the life of a child theyâ€™d never seen, of the family who found doctors and hospitals in Israel and, ultimately, Boston, to treat her, of a bond that grew so deep there was no question she would be officially adopted, is nothing short of miraculous.
It is an ongoing saga of modern-day goodness in a materialistic, ego-driven world; a story of unrelenting dedication to a child â€“ and now to her entire hometown in Sierra Leone â€“ that can only be explained as the act of people living their faith in a way that is making a profound difference.
It all began, Safiatu explains, when she was five years old.
â€śI started getting sick,â€ť she says in a soft voice. â€śThey thought it was malaria. The doctor said it was nothing big but it got worse. My mom noticed Iâ€™d been lagging behind, not doing what I usually did. She took me to Freetown and we learned I had a hole in my heart, but there were no doctors or medicines [to treat her.]
â€śWe traveled to many different places but there was no hope. Every day I got a little worse.â€ť
â€śDoctors Without Borders couldnâ€™t help,â€ť notes Jeff. â€śThey needed an electrocardiogram [machine] to diagnose the exact nature of the problem. There wasnâ€™t one in the entire country.â€ť
Safiatu was too ill to attend school in Kabala and, she says, on the few occasions she tried she wasnâ€™t well enough to keep up with the class.
In the throes of her devastating illness, Safiatu and her family were forced to flee the country because the long war in Sierra Leone made things â€śvery risky.â€ť
Meanwhile, Dorcas Kamanda had been writing updated accounts of the childâ€™s condition that were published in the Methodist church weekly bulletin.
The Dallas family was moved by the story and got involved.
â€śThe disparity of life between here and there [is dramatic],â€ť says Jeff. â€śPeople here feel compelled to do something to help.â€ť
At the time, Sammy was 11 and, after reading the bulletin, told her mother that Safi shouldnâ€™t have to suffer because of where she was born. Lisa began doing research online, by phone and e-mail trying to obtain the life-saving surgery and follow-up medical care Safiatu needed.
Sammy and Abbey opened a lemonade stand to raise money.
The church council voted unanimously to use what remained from an earlier fund started to help finance surgery for a child in the congregation. Individual church members made donations.
Lisa found a hospital in Israel willing to take Safiatuâ€™s case; besides the severe heart issues, she was weak and jaundiced. Her condition worsened as she waited for the church to finish gathering the $25,000 needed for surgery.
The initial operation in 2006 seemed successful but, over the course of a year, Safiatuâ€™s condition began to deteriorate.
â€śShe was slipping away,â€ť says Jeff. â€śThe only way to help her was to bring her here temporarily or permanently. She had malnutrition and the distended belly [seen in photos of starving African children.] Her family had foodâ€ť but she was too sick to eat.
â€śThings went totally backâ€ť to what theyâ€™d been before the surgery, he continues. â€śThere was only one way to save her.â€ť
He went to fetch Safiatu and they flew to Boston from Sierra Leone via a 10-hour layover in London. Jeff had been telling Safi, whose cement-block house in Kabala had no electricity, that there would be â€śelectricity all the time when we got here.â€ť
Lisa and the kids drove to Boston to pick them up and, when they finally got to West Greenwich, â€śwe arrived to a dark house and a power outage.â€ť Not that Safiatu noticed.
â€śI was so tired I fell asleep as soon as we got into the driveway,â€ť she recalls. â€śThe next day, I was really scared â€“ all the woods; where was I?â€ť
She began a series of corrective surgeries in Boston.
â€śHer heart had been so sick; sheâ€™d already been through a lot,â€ť says Jeff, who explains that failure to replace the heart valves during the procedure in Israel required a second operation, in Boston. While she was still recovering, a third surgery was undertaken after the doctor thought one of the valves was leaking.
It turned out that the ends of her pacemaker wires were stabbing Safi, causing fluid buildup and swelling. During that period, Jeff says, â€śEvery day was like the day after surgery.â€ť
After the final surgery, Safi began feeling better.
When she was strong enough, retired teachers from the Methodist church congregation took on the job of tutoring Safiatu so she could go to school. After a year-and-a-half, she went into fourth grade. Safi studied hard in the summer, allowing her to skip fifth grade and enter sixth.
She was also adjusting to American customs and New England climate.
When the first Halloween rolled around, she was aghast at the creepy costumes and decided that wasnâ€™t for her.
â€śI dressed as a princess and was pulled around in a wagon,â€ť she recalls, giggling.
The weather also required a major adjustment for the child who had grown up in the African heat. â€śIt was freezing at first,â€ť she says, â€śbut now I know itâ€™s coming.â€ť
The Dallas family was growing to love Safiatu more; they decided to take the next step and legally adopt her.
â€śIt developed over time,â€ť Lisa explains. â€śIt just needed to happen.â€ť
Born a Muslim, Safi converted to Christianity and was baptized in the Methodist church in order to share her new familyâ€™s faith.
At the Dallas farm where the kids keep chickens, milk goats and bunnies, Safiatu expressed interest in having a rabbit and a goat. Then, she says, she learned â€śhow hard they are to take care ofâ€ť and decided she prefers the company of Emmett, the family dog.
The North Kingstown Methodist Church continues to support the NarSarah Clinic in Sierra Leone through an annual all-day sewing bee to make little dresses for village girls, as well as an initiative started by member Ruth Sperry. She buys plain white T-shirts and sends them to Africa where they are tie-dyed, decorated and returned here for sale.
What started as a small venture in Kabala now employs 50 women. A third of the money they make benefits Women Against Poverty; a third goes to their individual families; a third benefits the clinic. The line of products, sold at the church and through crafts fairs, has expanded to include batik, woven baskets and little dolls.
Through this program and the churchâ€™s support, the clinic has grown to a large U-shaped building with a solar-powered generator. Safi and the other Dallas girls make and sell bracelets to help the cause and are extending the line with headbands and anklets.
Safi has spoken with her school adviser about organizing a fundraiser.
â€śUsually my focus is on kids,â€ť she says, â€śbut I want to raise money to buy an electrocardiogramâ€ť machine.
Her journey, says Safiatu Bah Dallas, has been â€śa long road; hard, fun, exciting and sometimes sad. But mostly fun.â€ť
The clinic needs equipment including an oxygen cylinder, ultrasound and suction machines as well as incubators and hospital beds. To learn more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 294-9293.
Martha is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at email@example.com.