Scotch Plains artist builds bridge to Africa

Scotch Plains artist builds bridge to Africa

JCC teacher assists teenagers and the blind in marketing jewelry

From the air-conditioned, amply equipped art studio in the basement of the JCC of Central New Jersey, the hot and dusty workrooms of Sierra Leone might seem a world apart. But one teacher in that Scotch Plains studio is bringing her students an experience fresh from that corner of West Africa.

Debbie Livingston, who lives in Scotch Plains, was in the town of Kabala in Sierra Leone for two weeks this past fall, teaching teens and blind people to create jewelry using beads made from fabric remnants. To get there, she had to quell her fears and ride a motorbike — there was no other transport available — but neither that, nor the fact that there was no electricity or running water, dimmed her enthusiasm.

In a recent interview, Livingston explained how she showed students at the Kabala School for the Blind how to make beads by gluing and rolling fabric strips around plastic drinking straws. “I tried it out with my eyes closed, to see how it would feel for them,” she said.

She also worked with teens from the Creative Arts Initiative, part of SEED Inc., a Colorado-based organization that works to improve the lives of the rural poor of Sierra Leone, and with adults from a local nonprofit, Women Against Poverty. She showed them how to turn the beads into necklaces and earrings that they can sell to local people or tourists.

Livingston brought powdered glue and metal earring hooks and catches with her from New Jersey, and left behind ample supplies so the work could go on, but she said the people in Kabala can also create substitutes.

All that careful preparation was based on what she had learned on her first visit to the area, in December 2011. She accompanied her husband, Dr. David Livingston, on a mission organized by the International Surgical Health Initiative, as she did this past trip.

ISHI was founded by one of Dr. Livingston’s colleagues, Dr. Ziad Sifri, in 2009.

On the 2011 trip to Kabala, while the doctors, working at a breakneck pace alongside local medical staff, operated on about 170 people in five days at the Kabala Government Hospital, Livingston got her own project going to brighten up the drab maternity ward. Guided by drawings she made of the staff, she had students from the Creative Arts Initiative create a mural. “Everyone who went by me as I was painting would say ‘Tankiye’ — ‘Thank you,’” she recalled.

The medical team returned this past October to build on the success of the first mission and treat some of the patients they couldn’t help the first time. “On this second trip,” Livingston said, “I wanted to give people there something they could do to earn money.” She herself bought beads from the blind workers and finished objects from the teens to whom she gave those beads. “They really liked that,” she recalled with a grin. “But they also knew they could carry on making and selling them after I’d gone.”

Livingston created two books of her etchings and drawings on the trips. The one from 2011 won a purchase award from the Newark Public Library. A video of the trip and the making of Livingston’s mural can be seen at

Back home and teaching art classes at the JCC, Livingston can get around on four wheels instead of two and doesn’t need translators to facilitate conversation. But, she said, she relished her African experiences. “The international volunteering has changed my outlook on life,” she said.

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