By Lori Leath Smith
Last fall, photographer and philanthropist Zhalman Harris, best known locally behind the camera, returned to his home country Liberia on a mission: to tour schools and orphanages to bring help to under-privileged children plagued by the lack of basic needs, education and other necessities.
Zhalman’s passion for the Liberian children is deep rooted. Born in Monrovia, he lost his mom during Liberia’s 14 years of civil war that ravaged the country when a bomb hit their home. He has now founded the Florida-based non-profit Aletha’s Legacy named in her honor.
Aletha’s Legacy is a 501c3 organization founded to give underprivileged children in Liberia and Africa hope and a chance to a better education. Its primary objective is to create a better learning environment for these vulnerable and fragile children. “We are raising funds to renovate entire schools and update the facilities, such as classrooms, the library, restrooms, the offices, the school grounds, and cafeterias,” says Zhalman. “We also want to provide a stipend for the teachers after all renovations and upgrades are completed.”
Aletha’s Legacy began its first project with the elementary school which was founded by Zhalman’s grandfather! Zhalman says he vowed never to go back to Liberia, because of the atrocities he had seen. But in 2010, he started feeling the urge to return and help his home country, though he will continue to live in Destin. “The idea just kept coming back that I had a starting point, a school with my family name on it that we could help, and in my heart, I knew it was right,” Zhalman states emotionally. “But, because I was not planning on narrowing assistance to my family school only, I toured other schools and orphanages and decided to choose four that Aletha’s Legacy will be working with and helping in the years to come.”
This past February, a fundraiser was held In Destin. The event brought together Zhalman’s friends, prominent members of the community and keynote speaker, former Finance Minister of Liberia Hon. Amara Konneh. That event raised $56,000 of $170,000 needed to start the building of the new two-story, 10-classroom school building. Immediately, some of the funds were transferred to begin construction of the school’s perimeter wall, the foundations of the main school building and the cafeteria. Between February and May, the first and second phases were completed.
“I and my board members express appreciation to the community and businesses for their support and generosity, such as Insurance Zone, Setco, Beauchamp Commercial, Sandestin Foundation, VIP Magazine, Destin Rotary, Greater Horizons and the many individuals who have stood by the organization to help bring change and hope to those vulnerable children in Liberia,” said Zhalman thankfully. “Because of you, we were able to start the building and renovation of the Abedu-Bentsi School within three months of our visit to Liberia. They said they had never seen a structure go up that fast.”
Contractors now await more funds to begin the third phase which is to complete the cafeteria and restrooms and take the main building to the 2nd floor. $65,000 is needed to complete the building and there are donor naming opportunities for the cafeteria, auditorium, labs and classrooms. “We made a commitment to this school and we are determined to change the students’ lives for the better by improving their educational conditions and their health,” says Zhalman.
Longterm, through local community support and others, Aletha’s Legacy plans to provide the four chosen schools a safe environment and the tools they need to become self-sufficient. “Your contributions will help these underprivileged children get the education they need, but never dreamt of,” Zhalman says.