GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — After growing up in refugee camps in Liberia during the country’s civil war, coming to the United States was like arriving in heaven for a then 13-year-old Eli “Big Boy” Gbayee.
Now, Gbayee, 28, a Richard Stockton College graduate and local substitute teacher, wants to help his home country the way Americans helped him when he arrived here.
Gbayee said he saw people killed in front of him and children being used as soldiers.
“As a child, I would go begging for money. When the war was going on, there were times we’d get up and start running. I remember there were a lot of children running with their parents, and the adults couldn’t carry their children through the running and the chaos,” he said.
He became the first in his family to graduate from high school and college when he graduated with a degree in hospitality management from Richard Stockton College in 2009. He played on the Absegami High School varsity soccer team and now coaches players.
But as blessed as he felt he was, Gbayee could not stop thinking about his home country.
In August, he returned to Liberia for three weeks, where he visited with his family. But the sights he saw saddened him. His father looked like a homeless man, he said. Gbayee said he was able to buy food for his family and give them some money.
But he knew he needed to do more.
Gbayee bought 120 pairs of flip-flops when he arrived in Liberia to distribute to children there.
It was a simple gesture, but one that had a huge impact, more so, perhaps, on Gbayee than on the those he tried to help that day.
“When I gave the flip-flops out, there was about 400 kids who (wanted) them, and I felt so bad I didn’t have any more, and I promised them we’re going to come back and give them more,” he said.
Gbayee returned to the United States with nothing in his suitcase and the clothes he was wearing.
And he had a plan to start a nonprofit to help his native country. He said he wants to build something for Liberians, whether it’s a soup kitchen or a gathering place.
“So many people here have done so much for me and have helped me. I feel like this is my calling. When I was there it reminded me of when I was a kid in a refugee camp,” he said.
Absegami guidance counselor Joe Monteleone, said he wasn’t Gbayee’s counselor, but he was in awe each day as he watched the way the young man carried himself through the hallways.
“I always remember him being positive, always smiling. You wish you could figure out where that comes from. There are some kids who have everything and can’t find happiness. And here’s a kid who just strived to do the right thing,” Monteleone said.
Absegami gym teacher and head soccer coach Bill Rose said he coached Gbayee and now he works as his assistant soccer coach.
When Gbayee began his academic career at Absegami, immediately he wanted to succeed and soccer was the vehicle he used because he knew the sport, Rose said.
There were times when Gbayee was late for soccer practice and Rose would confront him only to learn that he’d been with a teacher learning to read.
“Then I’d feel bad because here he was just trying to do his best. He’s come such a long way. I am so proud of him and what he has accomplished up to this point. He’s been one of the absolute success stories in my 26 years of coaching,” Rose said.
In Liberia, Gbayee was not able to attend school because of the civil war.
For that reason, he made sure his school attendance was perfect and he was never late for class. The littlest things were the most appreciated, like books that he was able to take home and study from.
Gbayee said he won’t stop until he reaches his goal, similar to his quest for academic excellence when he came to the United States and started the ninth grade.
“The day when I found out we were coming here it was the best day of my life. It felt like all my suffering and the struggles I had been through were over. Now, as I get ready to do this, every part of body, every bone is telling me this is what I need to do,” he said.
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