Meeting My First Liberian

For the last four months I have been living with a Liberian on a mission. Here in the beautiful town of Winter Park, Florida, among the cobble stone streets, branching oak trees hung with Spanish Moss, and beautiful architecture of a city now 125 years old, I have had the pleasure of getting to know the only Liberian I have ever met. Stephen B. Lavalah may have arrived as a distinguished United States Department of State IREX intern, but he is leaving the United States a wiser man and a beloved friend by all who have had the pleasure of meeting him.

My name is Clayton Louis Ferrara and I would like to tell you a story about one of the greatest gifts my organization has ever received. I am biologist, poet, organizer and the first American to be awarded the Darwin Scholarship by the U.K. based Field Studies Council. I have the pleasure of serving as National Science Director for a United Nations accredited, environmental non-profit organization advancing sustainability at K-12 schools, colleges, and communities around the world, called IDEAS For Us. We received Mr. Lavalah as our intern and IREX fellow for the purpose of sharing with him what our organization does, and how we are able to make the kind of change we do with little or no funding. Mr. Lavalah is the Founder of Liberia’s Youth Exploring Solutions (YES), and the educational, environmental, and humanitarian work he does is very similar to how we find solutions to the problems here in America.

Since 2008, IDEAS For Us has been staffed by  volunteers who are motivated by the passion for change to make the World a better place. With little more than determination, and partnerships we have spread to over 15 countries  around the world, and dozens of chapters in the United States. In 2011 we were named a Champion of Change by President Barak Obama, and the Best Environmental Organization of 2011 by the Florida Wildlife federation. As a 27 year old American, I am the oldest staff member, and the second oldest leader in our organization. I mention this because wherever we go we want to inspire  young people to join the youth-led movement towards making the World a better place. Our history has shown through our American Revolution, our bloody Civil War, and our arrival as a super power after World War II, that the future depends on young people who believe that they can change the World.

The 21st Century is full of dangers. Energy, water, food, waste, and ecology issues threaten all nations and all people regardless of money, religion, or the education they may or may not have. As a new generation of young Americans, we firmly believe in the brotherhood of all people coming together to create the solutions we need to build a sustainable future. I am happy to say that in 2013, the bond between Liberia and the United States became even stronger because of Stephen B. Lavalah.

Since August, he has served as an ambassador of his country, a spokesperson of her culture, a lecturer, teacher, volunteer, and friend. He has worked alongside students, professionals, members of city government, and fellow scientists to learn as much as he can about how we as Americans organize and make meaningful change. However, I am most happy to say that Mr. Lavalah has taught us far more than we ever expected. His curiosity, brilliance, and motivation has helped inspire everyone who met him, and worked along side our efforts. Mr. Lavalah took part in our many action projects and activities including aquatic plantings, an eco-car show, trash clean ups, and canoeing adventures. He spoke at town hall meetings, took part in environmental rallies, authored blog articles, and lectured to students from college age, to as young as 5 years old. Mr. Lavalah feasted at an American Thanksgiving, took part in his 1st Halloween, held the flipper of a mother sea turtle as she laid her eggs on the beaches of South Florida, and even took a road trip in a bus full of American students to Pittsburg Pennsylvania to take part in a protest march. He traveled with me from the sandy beaches of South Beach Miami, to the capital city of Florida, Tallahassee, and up to the historic city of Savannah Georgia. We did our best to share with him the best America has to offer, and to honestly show him the many problems with our society we are still working to solve.

When we, as Americans, think of Africa many things come to mind. We think of your diversity, your cultures, the destruction caused  by the trans-atlantic slave trade, your wars, corruption, and poverty. But because of Mr. Lavalah and the wonderful opportunity we were given by the United States Department of State to work along side him these four months, the young Americans in my organization now think of a brighter and better Africa full of people like Mr. Lavalah. Because of him, we deeply care for Liberia and we want to see the county thrive in this 21st Century. We are confident that the efforts of Youth Exploring Solutions will contribute to make Liberia unlike what she is today. We see her as a country of hope, of peace, and of prosperity where education, electrification, and environmental protection all form the backbone of her society.

I do not know what the future will hold for the seven billion people of this beautiful World we call home. But I do know that the World is a better place because of people like Mr. Lavalah. Brotherhood, peace, cooperation, and the sharing of ideas, and wisdom have and will always be the only things that erase the evils from this world. In the last four months of living with Mr. Lavalah here in the United States has taught me that all things are possible if we look to the things that unite us, as opposed to the things that tear us apart. Know in your hearts that there are many Americans here that he leaves behind who believe in him, and his quest to build a sustainable Liberia.


Clayton Louis Ferrara is a Chilean-born American naturalist, poet, educator, and popular writer. He is a founding board member of the United Nations accredited environmental action, and advocacy NGO, IDEAS For Us. He has served as National Science Director and South Eastern Regional Director of the USA since stepping off the board in 2012.

His professional career started in South Florida at the age of 12 when he began teaching ecology, conservation, and youth empowerment to the general public as a docent to numerous museums, aquariums, and interpretative nature centers in the area. He received a B.A. in both biology and environmental studies from the prestigious, liberal arts and science college, Rollins. In 2011, he received the honor of being called a Young Alumnus of Significant Distinction for his work to advance sustainability and environmental education in Central Florida. In 2013, he was named a Darwin Scholar by the U.K. based Field Studies Council (FSC) for his accomplishments as a young naturalist on the global stage. He subsequently traveled to London to meet Charles Darwin’s great grandson as the first American to ever to win the internationally prestigious award. 

His contemporary accomplishments range from building celebrated zoological and botanical collections for museums, to authoring unique science curriculums used by students around the World. As a biologist, he has conducted scientific research on plant and animal diversity, habitat restoration, evolutionary mechanisms, and sustainable development in over a dozen countries around the World. 

Clayton Louis Ferrara is also an accomplished activist, fundraiser, orator, poet, artist, philosopher, musician, and philanthropist. He currently lives in Winter Park, Florida.

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