'My Happy Place' is a weekly Press series in which local notables take us on a tour of a favorite spot in their home.

Over the years, memories from Hope for Liberia’s mission work have moved into the founder’s living room, making the area his “happy place.”

Eli Gbayee, 33, of Atlantic City, has photographs, art and souvenirs connected to Liberia, his birth country.

In 2013, Gbayee returned to Liberia for the first time in 14 years and saw young people struggling as he once did. This experience inspired him to start Hope for Liberia in 2014.

The nonprofit organization has a mission to “provide the poorest communities with food, clothing, potable water and basic supplies, as well as access to medical care and educational opportunities,” according to its website, which also states its motto as: “Together we can give hope.”

“When I come here (the living room), and I see all the things that remind me what I’m doing this for, it just makes me happy,” Gbayee said.

Among the noteworthy items is a picture of running men hanging above his television. He said the artwork represents the mantra: “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.”

While living on the streets in Liberia, Gbayee never thought he would live to be 18, nonetheless settle in America, he said. “But look at where I’m at today,” Gbayee said. “God is using me to bless so many other people.”

Also displayed in the living room is a water bottle cover, made by a woman he met in Liberia as a “thank you” for his volunteer work. Gbayee said whenever he uses it, he thinks about those whom Hope for Liberia has helped.

The Liberian flag, which bears a close resemblance to the American flag, is also draped next to a photograph of one of his many mission trips. Another notable piece is the Helping Young Men Value Each Other (HYVE) plaque Gbayee earned in 2018 from the Atlantic City Police Athletic League.

Gbayee said he also enjoys the living room to video chat, call and text his fiancée, Harriette Pailey, 27, of Liberia. The couple met in Liberia while volunteering. Today, Gbayee considers her a director for the organization. Gbayee also has pictures of his daughter, Rosita, 13, displayed.

In 1999, at 13, Gbayee immigrated to the United States after being reunited with his family, from which he had been separated from during the Liberian civil war. He played soccer and graduated from Absegami High School in 2003, later returning as an assistant boys soccer coach. In 2008, he became a U.S. citizen. In 2009, Gbayee graduated from what is now Stockton University, where he studied hospitality management.

Today, Gbayee is a substitute teacher for local school districts and a commissioner for the Atlantic City Housing Authority, which allows him to help people in low-income housing. Gbayee also visits schools to share his life story.

“To come into a warm home like this is a blessing,” Gbayee said. “I call (America) my heaven on Earth.”

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