A school girls' bond led a few local residents to a land far removed from two sisters lives in Somervell County last summer.

Like many missionaries, Mark Crawford and Shelley McFadin say their lives were forever changed by the people they met In Africa and the conditions in which the villagers live.

In June, one year after the first trip, the group plans to return to the village in the African state of Sierra Leone where they intend to spread Christianity and share progresses in hygiene, healthcare and education with villagers.

To facilitate the mission trip, they have organized an event, "CHRISTmas in Africa," which will be held early next month.

"We hope people will help support our mission to return to the remote villages of Sierra Leone to provide for the health, educational and spiritual needs the native people," McFadin said.

A call to service

Sisters Gina Sannoh and Sao Rogers were very young when they fled their homeland.

The twin sisters were born in West Africa and fortunate to escape the brutal civil war and rebel forces who left a path of destruction through remote villages, including their own.

Their mother was able to place the twins in a Unicef program that was sending refugee children to England and the United States. After arriving in America, the sisters were placed in foster care and eventually landed in Glen Rose where they were raised in the local school system and embraced by the community. Cross Country Coach Sheree Hill and ESl teacher Lorrie McCravey took the girls under their wings, mentoring them and taking them on as their own.

In June, about a year after their high school graduation, those bonds led them on a more than 5,000-mile journey back to their birthplace and into the arms of family they had not seen since they were young.

"I had been planning a mission trip to Africa," Crawford said. "I was talking to Gina and asked how often she got to talk to her mom, she said as often as possible. There's only one phone in the village, so it wasn't easy.

"I asked when she planned to see her mom again, and Gina said 'hopefully before she dies,'" Crawford recalled. "Her mother's health was not good. Since the girls fled Africa, their grandmother had passed away."

McFadin had also been wanting to take a mission beyond national borders.

"What could be better than going where these girls are from and helping their village?" she said.

Suddenly the mission took on a two-fold purpose - and a direction.

"We decided to do a ground floor mission needs assessment in the village where the girls were raised," Crawford said.

Crawford, his daughter, Breanna, and McFadin decided to reunite the sisters with family in Sierra Leone. Pastor Troy Brewer and his wife, Leanna Brewer, with Spark International out of Joshua, accompanied them.

For Breanna, the mission was about sisterhood. The three girls had formed a bond that stretched beyond being teammates on Glen Rose High School's cross country team.

Making a difference

Once they landed in Africa, the stark difference between the nation and American life were readily apparent.

"Their uncle, Ibrham met us in the capitol city and facilitated our six-hour trip into the bush, 12 miles from the closest path," Crawford said.

Crawford said It was a perilous journey for the group of American missionaries. En route to the village, the bus they were traveling in slid off a road in the middle of a rainstorm and they remained stuck without clean water and other necessities for some time. At another point, the vehicle was attacked by an angry mob.

"We saw a young man who was accused of stealing being beaten," he added.

But, as they reached their destination, the group was greeted with open hearts and open minds.

"Many of the villagers had never seen white people," Crawford said. "But we were embraced by villagers young and old."

"They had been working with school children day and night to learn songs," McFadin added. "When we arrived, they lined up singing prayers and songs to welcome us."

McFadin was most amazed by the children and their reaction to a load of toys and other things they brought to villagers.

"What they wanted most were the shoes," McFadin said.

But the missionaries agreed the natives' needs are much greater than flip-flops.

In 2013, the group hopes to help secure a land within the village to construct a church next to the clinic, which Crawford said serves a center for child birth and has none of the amenities needed to provide effective care.

"There is no generator," he said. "There is about 1,100 people in the village and all of their medical supplies could fit in a shoebox. It's the third poorest country in the world, it has about seven hospitals and only one with oxygen."

Crawford said about 10 percent of natives call themselves Christian.

"There is a huge need to spread the Gospel," he said. "And help provide for an education."

There is a rule in Africa that says school children must wear uniforms.

"There were about 200 school-aged children in the village and about half of them were enrolled in school," he said. "The other half couldn't afford uniforms. When we returned, we raised enough money to buy two uniforms each for 200 students and pay enrollment fees."

That initiative was effective. A letter sent from the school district committee said that all children, especially girls, were encouraged at a tribal meeting to enroll in school.

Forever changed

While the missionaries returned to America, a part of them remained in Africa.

"It's all we could talk about for months," McFadin said. "We are still talking and thinking about it every day."

"It is like we now live in a make-believe reality," Crawford added. "It is strange to think of the comforts of our own world and how little others have."

In June, a group of 12 will return to the recesses of the remote village, for now their efforts are focused on raising funds.

And McFadin believes the atrocities that Gina and Sao once experienced were not in vain. While the girls have found a home in the western world and have since gained citizenship, McFadin said there was a purpose in their journey.

"God saved them," she said. "Others were not able to escape, but God made them invisible to the rebels for this exact purpose."

CHRISTmas in Africa will be held at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7, in the Glen Rose High School cafeteria. The fundraiser will feature a dessert bar, silent auction, slideshow presentation depicting the life in the African village and a special performance by high school and junior high choirs.

Tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the Glen Rose Reporter office, located at 1005 N.E. Big Bend Trail.

McFadin can be reached at Shelleymcfadin@yahool.com or (817) 360-7701.

You may also follow the effort on Facebook by liking "Christmas in Africa."