Evan Robbins read a New York Times article about the plight of a malnourished 6-year-old boy forced to sleep on the floor of a mud hut after fishing for 14 hours a day on Lake Volta in Ghana. At the time Robbins, a social studies teacher, was the father of a 6-year-old who was being raised in the comforts of suburban New Jersey, and the contrast between the children compelled him to help the exploited children.
“I spoke to my students who were motivated so we did a [fund-raising] walk in 2007,” he said about his cohort at Metuchen High School. He and his students founded a school group, Breaking the Chain Through Education Club (BTCTE), and eventually formed a partnership with the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
On Dec. 14, Robbins will be the guest speaker during Shabbat services at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, relaying stories of rescued children and detailing the efforts of his organization, now a non-profit that has saved 51 children from a life of enslavement, and educated 76 formerly indentured children through schools his organization has helped to build.
“They’re living in extreme poverty,” Robbins said of Ghanaian villagers, forcing some to sell their children to fisherman in order to survive. Sometimes, he said, the fishermen receive a new boat in exchange for a child.
After Robbins visited the country for the first time in 2010, he realized that rescuing a single child is difficult and time consuming. He struck a deal with the village of Awate Tornu, the first one to agree to free 19 children in return for a new school building. The children were rehabilitated and were able to return to their families.
In 2015, Breaking the Chain formed another partnership, this time with Challenging Heights, a Ghanaian organization that aids in the release of trafficked children and provides rehabilitation and monitoring for each child.
“How do we help these children who have had their whole lives uprooted?” said Robbins, a Verona resident and member of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell. “We’ve set up a vocational school, a group home for them, boarding schools. Some live with their families, some don’t. It’s what’s best for each child,” some of whom are in their mid-20s, he said.
Robbins noted some of the rescued children have become teachers, plumbers, and electricians, and one graduated last year from an agricultural college.
“All are progressing toward a goal of independence, which is our one requirement of them: that they work toward becoming independent and free,” he said.
In some cases, the families who sold the children are taught how to save money and plan for the future; the club has also aided families in setting up businesses.
It costs approximately $6,000 to rescue each child and provide several years of rehabilitative care, according to Robbins.
Students hold 10 fund-raisers each year, raising between $20,000-25,000, which Robbins said is “amazing” for a student club. In October, the group hosted the first Sam Liss Memorial 5K named in memory of a former club and Emanu-El member who died at 22.
Robbins’s wife and two daughters have accompanied him on his missions and they’ve met with the families, some of whom he has known for years. His wife, Lisa, has been to Ghana seven times and daughters, Arianna, 22, and Maya, 18 — both graduates of Golda Och Academy in West Orange — have been there three times each.
If you go
What: Breaking the Chain Through Education, freeing trafficked children in Ghana
Who: Evan Robbins
Where: Temple Emanu-El, Edison
When: Shabbat services, 8 p.m.