Never too late to lend a hand

John Olsen, founder and executive director of St. Bede Catholic Church's Brothers' Helpers, will travel to Ghana later this month as a missionary.

Olsen, 77, will take the trip alone, his second since first visiting Ghana last year. He will spend 10 months there, working with Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wa, the home diocese of former St. Bede priest-in-residence the Rev. Gregory Dongkore, who spent two years at the local church advocating for resources to assist Wa's diocesan schools.

Brothers' Helpers feeds and clothes the poor of Los Angeles' skid row, serving about 2,000 meals a week. Olsen will step down from the position and become chairman emeritus at the end of June, shortly before leaving for Ghana.

Olsen's last trip was inspired by his desire to do missionary work. He feels he has completed his work with Brothers' Helpers, saying that the work can easily be done by the group's roughly 100 volunteers when he leaves.

"I feel that it's gonna go whether I'm here or not," said Olsen of Brothers' Helpers, which he founded in 2003. "I've wanted to go to Africa for years, actually."

When trying to join a religious community several years ago, Olsen was told he was too old to go on missionary trips. So he began Brothers' Helpers. When the opportunity came to travel to Africa last year, he jumped at the opportunity, traveling with former St. Bede parishioner Rebecca Kerr.

"Things here can run smoothly without him," Kerr said. "It has gotten to the point where Brothers' Helpers will keep going."

Before visiting Ghana the first time, Olsen did not know what to expect. He knew that the diocese's 267 Catholic schools needed money, but any money he could raise would be akin to a grain of sand on the beach, he said, as the impact would be negligible. Of those students who attend primary school in Ghana, about 25% to 30% go on to attend high school. Most of the region's high schools are boarding schools and in better condition, Olsen said.

"I think what he'll accomplish is uniting our work, our efforts with theirs and be a link of goodwill and communication with Ghana," said Brothers' Helpers volunteer Liz Henry. "We also want to be able to help Ghana. Hopefully he'll be able to form a group of people from the community to help one another as he's doing here at the church."

Olsen's first trip to Ghana gave him a first-hand look at poverty in the country's diocesan schools. Some schools lack the most basic supplies, such as desks, blackboards and electricity, he said. Children use rocks as chairs, and the sun streaming through large cracks in the ceiling provides some light. Books are as valuable as gold, yet there is no place to keep them.

"The teachers really have to teach from the books," Olsen said.

When Olsen returned to La Cañada he reported his findings to anyone who would listen.

"Almost everybody's poor," Olsen said. "In that part of the country, almost everybody is a farmer. It's surprising to see all these poor people. They're so pleasant and so happy; they don't seem to have any of the hang-ups that we have here. Kids are running everywhere; animals are running all over the place."

The second trip will allow Olsen to determine the work that needs to be done, how much it will cost and what ways money can be raised to pay for the work. Olsen also hopes to improve communications between the schools and administrative offices. The administrative staff consists of only three people, Olsen said. And the school district administrator rarely comes into town because of a lack of gas to power his vehicle.

"We went there bringing school supplies, and realized that they won't do any good at a lot of the schools because they don't have even buildings where they can lock things up," Kerr said. "There's a lot he can do. There's a lot that needs to be done there."

Olsen will spend 10 months in Ghana. Although he has a pacemaker, Olsen said he is not worried about his health. He feels he has been called by God to do this work and will do it as long as he is able to.

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