Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
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Former Peace Corps volunteer meets with African president

KEY LARGO -- Sharon Alvarado remembers plenty of things about her time in Sierra Leone from 1964 to 1966 as a volunteer for the Peace Corps.

She remembers teaching chemistry at St. Francis secondary school in Makeni, a northern town in the small West African country. She remembers the children from the grammar school gathering each afternoon by the windows of the home she shared with Peace Corps colleagues to catch a glimpse of the exotic foreigners. She even remembers the yellow flowers in front of that house.

However, Alvarado doesn't remember Ernest Bai Koroma, the boy who grew up to become Sierra Leone's president. But Koroma remembers her.

"You never know who you're influencing," said Alvarado, who went onto a long career as Chicago school teacher before retiring to Key Largo in 1999.

It turns out Koroma, 59, was one of the grammar school boys who would peer through those windows of Alvarado's home. He was also the son of Alvarado's landlords in Makeni. So, as Koroma prepared for a March visit to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with President Obama, and also to make a speech at Peace Corps headquarters, he made a request to see the woman he remembered only as "Ms. Sharon."

After a look into their archives to see who was stationed in Makeni in the 1960s, Peace Corps administrators determined that the Sierra Leone president was referring to Alvarado. In late February, the Key Largo retiree received a call from Washington asking if she'd be available to meet Koroma before his speech on March 27.

"It was very surprising," Alvarado said of the invitation. "I had never met him. But I knew the name, that he was president. But I didn't associate the name with his parents."

She does remember Koroma's parents though, especially his mother, who was an educator herself. Alice Koroma, Alvarado said, was like a "mother hen" to her in Sierra Leone.

"She was always the one coming over telling us to do the right thing," Alvarado recalled.

Lessons like that might have served as a compass for Alice's son as well. For 24 years Koroma pursued a career in the insurance industry. But in 2002, with Sierra Leone emerging from a brutal 11-year civil war that would be famously depicted in the 2006 film "Blood Diamonds," an unknown Koroma decided to enter the political fray. He won the leadership of the opposition All People's Congress party in 2002. Then he took the party into the majority in 2007, winning the presidency. Koroma was re-elected in a landslide last November.

During his meeting with Obama on March 28, the American president lauded Koroma and his administration for presiding over free elections in Sierra Leone and for providing good governance that has helped bring about economic growth. Koroma has also championed anti-corruption measures and focused on improving the health-care system in the country of 6 million.

A day before Obama met with Koroma, it was Alvarado's turn. They spoke one-on-one for 30 minutes at the Peace Corps headquarters. Alvarado, a member of the local Art Guild of the Purple Isles, gave Koroma a work she painted for him of the central traffic roundabout in Makeni.

The meeting, said Alvarado, was quiet, as they searched for things to discuss some five decades after her stay in Sierra Leone. Koroma mainly reminisced about the carefree fun of boyhood and about going with mother Alice to visit Alvarado and the other Peace Corps volunteers in their rented home. He also remembered looking through those windows.

In the end, said Alvarado, the experience has definitely made this year memorable. It also brought her closer to Sierra Leone, which she had never stopped keeping track of despite losing all of her contacts as a result of the civil war.

"To me it was really great to think somebody remembers you after 50 years," Alvarado said.

Especially when that somebody is a nation's president.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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