By Mallory Schlabach, Editor in Chief
When the Cope family read a New York Times article about a 6-year-old boy named Mark that had been sold into slavery to bail water out of a fishing boat in Ghana, Africa, they knew they had to do something.
So Pam Cope and her daughter Crista, freshman elementary education major from Neosho, Mo., decided to rescue him and six other children also working as child laborers.
“My dad saw the article while we were visiting in New York and showed my mom,” Crista said. “She and I read it and were weeping by the time we were done. We knew we had to help them. Something had to be done.”
Pam contacted the Times reporter, Sharon LaFraniere, who put her into contact with the guide she used while writing the story. Pam learned the children could be rescued for $320 per child, but they needed a place to live.
She contacted her brother in-law, Mike Cope, adjunct in the Bible, Missions and Ministry Department and senior pastor at Highland Church of Christ, who told her about Village of Hope, an orphanage in Ghana where an ACU professor was on the board: Dan McVey, missions coordinator for Africa.
“My mom wrestled with the idea of what to do for a while because she assumed that out of all the people that read the New York Times, someone would help these children. We were the only ones though,” Crista said.
Little did the Copes know, but Oprah Winfrey was also searching for Mark to rescue him. Winfrey sent Lisa Ling, her ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ correspondent, to Ghana to find Mark. Instead, they learned that a mom of four from Missouri had rescued him, so they invited them onto the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show’ to talk about how they had rescued him.
The show aired Friday on ABC and opened with this statement by Winfrey:
“When I saw this picture of this little boy in the New York Times, I was haunted by this little boy and his story. I was not alone. So did this Missouri mom, and what she did will make your heart soar.”
Pam was the only person onstage with Oprah, who was hearing of the Copes’ rescue of the seven children for the first time. Crista and her dad Randy were shown sitting in the front row when Winfrey asked both of them questions about how the rescue transpired in their home.
Crista said before the show Winfrey came into their dressing room and taked with them.
“Most people don’t realize it but Oprah didn’t know everything about our story when we were on the show. She sees the footage and hears our story for the first time, so everything you see her react to is real,” Crista said.
Two weeks before Christmas, the children the Copes rescued were released from the fishermen who owned them and taken to Village of Hope orphanage. At the beginning of January, Crista and her mom traveled to Ghana for a little more than a week to meet the kids and let them know they were loved.
Crista said that by the end of the trip the kids were calling her Sister Crista and her mom Mama Pam.
Crista said her family calls the children they rescued the “magnificent seven,” and they plan to go back to Ghana as often as they can.
On the episode that aired Friday afternoon, Ling said it is estimated that one in every four children in Ghana work as child laborers.
Children are often sold into slavery by their parents for money. Some are promised $20 per child for a year but often don’t receive all the money they are promised or have to spend half of it on transportation fees to go pick it up.
When parents send their child with fishermen looking for workers, they are promised money in return for their child, along with the promise to keep them safe. Ling said parents don’t realize the terrible conditions their children are forced into by selling them.
While people may think the fishermen are evil for forcing the children to slavery, most fishermen on these lakes were fishing children themselves, so they know what it’s like. It’s simply a way of life for them.
Crista said the children work 12-14 hour days on fishing boats beginning as young as age 4. Many cannot swim and are forced to jump into the water to find nets entangled in the lakes.
The Ghanaian government is trying to stop parents from selling their children. Child slavery is illegal in Ghana – but the government just doesn’t have the resources to stop all the trafficking of children, said Richard Danziger, the head of counter-trafficking at International Organization of Migration, an organization that rescues children from slavery, on the show.
After visiting them in Ghana, Crista said it was neat to see them happy.
“These kids are literally skin and bones, but they have muscles. They never got to play and never knew their parents. Now they can laugh and get an education,” she said. “It’s neat to see God working through you. These kids were nothing, and now they have a future and education and will learn about God.”
Both Crista and Winfrey came to the same conclusion: If a mom in Missouri can rescue children in Ghana, then anyone can do it.
“I’ve interviewed thousands of people – famous people, rich people – but never has anyone deserved a standing ovation more than you,” Winfrey said to Pam on the show.