17/03/2015 05:51 GMT | Updated 13/05/2015 06:59 BST

Why Sierra Leone's Ebola Orphans Are Not Victims

Recently, I had the opportunity to address the Queen and leaders from around the world at the Commonwealth Day Observance at Westminster Abbey. This year's Commonwealth theme is 'A Young Commonwealth'. The message I gave in my address was clear: we have a huge responsibility to invest in young people.

I was a child when the brutal civil war blighted Sierra Leone. My parents were so moved by the plight of child soldiers that they rescued and invited over 800 child soldiers into our lives. All were victims of war, pulled out of the conflict and into our home, I shared my clothes, food and parents with them.

These children had done some horrendous things during the war. Many people were afraid of them, and some pitied them. My father, the late Richard Cole, saw them differently - he had a vision that with the right support, these children would become the people to rebuild Sierra Leone in the years to come.

This is now a reality. Thanks to my father's different perspective, a group of these former child soldiers are now community leaders in Sierra Leone. They work with me as we continue his vision through Lifeline Nehemiah Projects Together we run four schools, a safe home for vulnerable children and a vocational training centre. We are working with farmers, running businesses and doing everything we can to bring economic and social restoration to Sierra Leone.

In the summer of 2014, we were stopped in our tracks by Ebola. The epidemic hit our community hard. Friends, neighbours, and colleagues were dying. For me, the most harrowing experience was watching a pregnant woman die of Ebola in front our eyes. Our community was under attack and we knew we had to be part of the solution.

So we took on a new fight: to end Ebola in our community. Our team designed an Ebola education programme which has equipped over 50,000 people with life-saving knowledge. In addition we have provided essential supplies and support to over 8,000 quarantined individuals. We are part of the National Ebola Response Committee and with the support of Medair, Oxfam and UK AID we have built an Ebola Clinic which has treated 94 people in the last 10 weeks.

In January I was honoured to receive the Queen's Young Leader Award for my work with Lifeline Nehemiah Projects and the practical action to address Ebola.

It was the vision and commitment of my father and those who worked with him, however, that transformed so many child soldiers into community leaders. We need to make that choice again today - to invest in young people, seeing them as leaders of the future.

Ebola has interrupted our work, but I believe it has given us another opportunity to see my father's vision fulfilled. In Kuntorloh as the number of Ebola orphans in our community increases, it would be easy to see these young girls and boys as victims. But we believe that with the right care and investment, they are not helpless. We know very well our responsibility to these children, which is why we are increasing our capacity to care for them.

The development of Sierra Leone is bound up in their future, just as it was with the former child soldiers who will mentor and support them at LifeLine Nehemiah Projects in the years ahead.


PJ Cole trains and mobilises community leaders in Sierra Leone. He is a winner of the Queens Young Leaders Award and is the Executive Director of Lifeline Nehemiah Projects