Writer(s): Natalie Moya
After 33 hours on and off airplanes, Jennifer England finally entered the Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, Liberia. As she made her way through the “organized chaos” and out into the sticky African air, she spotted the very reason she made this journey.
“Well, I guess that’s her,” she thought, “the lady I’ve flown across an ocean to work with.”
Jennifer had first learned about Seren Frost in an article in Radiant magazine, a Catholic women’s publication, in 2007. Seren founded an organization called L.A.C.E.S., a Christian non-profit dedicated to mentoring Liberian youth using soccer leagues. A Christian and a soccer player herself, Jennifer was immediately interested in Seren and her work. She contacted Seren and donated some of her old soccer equipment for the kids in the program.
When it came time for Jennifer to graduate from college in December, she hadn’t forgotten about Seren. Jennifer sent Seren an email asking how she could help with L.A.C.E.S. By March, she was the new intern and landing in a far-off country, trusting the next six weeks of her life to this stranger and her cause.
But Jennifer and Seren became fast friends. They had to – if for no other reason than Jennifer’s bags were lost during her flight, and she needed to borrow Seren’s clothes. But after living with Seren for just a short while, Jennifer realized what type of person she truly is.
“I have never met anyone like Seren in my whole life,” Jennifer says. “When she is driven on something, there is no stopping her.”
A Muncie native, SEREN IS
the middle of five children. She started playing soccer at a young age, mostly because her older sister played; and like many little girls, she wanted to do everything her sister did. But when her cleats dug into the grass, Seren fell in love with the sport. From then on, she did everything for soccer.
Her mother was a stickler for balance, so Seren would sit through piano lessons and diligently attend youth group meetings simply to earn the right to attend soccer practice. After high school, Seren sought out a college where she could play, choosing Indiana Wesleyan University but eventually transferring to Ball State. Described by some as a fitness queen of sorts, Seren found her path in athletics, graduating with a degree in athletic training in 2002.
Two years later, Seren was finishing a fellowship in athletic training at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and something didn’t feel right. She realized that she wasn’t excited about this career anymore. She wanted something different.
So she started looking. She decided that she wanted to live overseas and do some sort of service or volunteer work, but if you asked her what or where, she wouldn’t know what to say. Seren eventually came across Mercy Ships. This global Christian charity, which re-purposes old cruise ships and ferries to serve as floating hospitals off the coasts of third-world countries, was a great fit for Seren’s health background and Christian upbringing. She applied right away. But when she heard back from Mercy Ships, it wasn’t good news. Seren has epilepsy, and Mercy Ships saw this as a hazard, considering the close quarters in which she would be working and living on the ship. The response came as a surprise.
“My seizures had never prevented me from doing anything in my life,” Seren says, “so that was a pretty big blow.”
Discouraged, Seren started looking for a position in her field in the states. A year later, while working as an athletic trainer for ATI Physical Therapy, Seren received an unexpected phone call. It was a woman from Mercy Ships.
The woman, calling from Liberia, told Seren that she had been lobbying on her behalf for the past year and had managed to secure Seren a spot on a ship off the coast of Liberia.
In a matter of months, Seren raised $10,000 and jet-setted across the Atlantic to the West African nation of Liberia in January of 2006. While working for Mercy Ships was a turning point in Seren’s life, she had no idea what more would come of this trip.
About three weeks into her stint with Mercy Ships, Seren ventured on land to play a pick-up game of soccer with some of the other people in her group. A professional Liberian women’s soccer team had been running the field before the Mercy Ships players had begun their game, and the team saw that Seren knew her way around a soccer field. They approached her after the informal game and asked if she would consider joining their pro team, Anchor. Seren happily accepted and played with the team for the duration of her stay with Mercy Ships.
In between drills and games, Seren got to know the native women on her team, hearing their stories and learning about their home country. She not only began to realize the needs of these people, but she started to fall in love with them.
Liberia, nestled between
Sierra Leon, Guinea and Cote D’ivoire on the underbelly of West Africa, has been torn by two recent civil wars. A result of rebel groups struggling for government power, the latest war raged from 1999 to 2003. As rebels attacked entire villages and towns, innocent civilians were ravaged, and children were pressed into armies of child soldiers. With only three years to recover from its previous civil war, Liberia emerged tattered and beaten at the second war’s end in 2003. It not only left the country in a dire social and economic situation, but it deeply affected a generation of Liberians.
“I lived in Liberia for a total of two years,” Seren says. “I’ll never understand what happened for 14 years of civil war. I can’t comprehend it; I don’t understand it. As much as I want to, I just never will.”
She may not have understood what these people went through, but Seren knew she wanted to come back to Liberia. She needed to help these people whom she had grown so close to.
After her time with Mercy Ships ended, Seren returned to the United States. Her heart, however, was still being dribbled down a soccer field in Liberia. Once again, Seren took up her physical therapy job at ATI but warned her employer that it would only be for six months. She was going back to Liberia, someway, somehow.
Seren immediately began searching for another organization in Liberia that she could work with. Knowing the power of organized sports and seeing how soccer connected her to those women in Liberia, Seren knew she wanted something that would combine sports with service.
“Sports cross all cultural barriers,” she says.
The problem was that no one had put that combo into practice in Liberia. After venting her frustrations one day, a patient of hers asked Seren why, if she couldn’t find the organization she wanted, she couldn’t just start one up herself.
“I had 120 excuses as to why I couldn’t,” Seren says, but mostly it was fear. After some personal coaxing, Seren decided to give it a shot. The patient who sparked the flame happened to be a businessman, and he was willing to work with Seren to get her ideas down on paper and mock up a business plan for this organization-to-be.
Her patient wasn’t the only one willing to help make Seren’s vision a reality. Friends offered to help with research, fundraising and other details that were necessary to get this project off the ground.
“Once people catch your vision and they start talking about it, other people are like ‘Oh, hey how can I help them?’” she says. “It just snowballed.”
Before she knew it, Seren and her crew had gotten as far as developing a curriculum and raising $80,000 to jump-start the program. In six short months, L.A.C.E.S. was born, and Seren was Liberia-bound once again.
PART OF WHAT MOTIVATED
Seren to take on this project was what she saw when she first stepped foot in Liberia back in 2005.
“I had never seen such extreme poverty, where people legitimately did not know where their next meal of that day was going to come from,” Seren says. “You see so much brokenness.”
Almost everything about Liberia was a shock to her system.The majority of Liberia’s road infrastructure is rudimentary at best, and the capital city of Monrovia is the only capital in the world with no municipal power or even running water, Seren says. Not to mention the unemployment rate is a staggering 85 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.
One of the more shocking elements of the Liberian way of life for Seren’s intern, Jennifer, was the disregard for children, especially considering the country’s median age is 18 (it’s 36 in the United States) and 44 percent of the population is 14 or younger. Unlike in the United States, where children are often described as “the future,” in Liberia, children are considered to be the lowest rung on the social ladder, Jennifer says. Children lead even younger children along the sides of the roads at night, aimlessly. Five year olds are given machetes to cut wood. Children of all ages are expected to work on the family farm instead of go to school.
This noticeable disregard for children and their well-being is partially a result of the war, Seren explains. The parents of these children lived through so much turmoil. Many were child soldiers who came out with extreme emotional and mental damage. Some parents don’t have the time to devote to their children; they’re merely trying to put enough rice on the table that month. Others might be taking care of children whose parents died in the war, so they simply aren’t invested in them. Either way, the children of Liberia desperately need help.
“A lot of these kids just come hungry for attention and love and for someone to straight up invest in their lives,” Seren says.
And that’s what Seren and her L.A.C.E.S. team does. L.A.C.E.S. uses the rules of soccer, standards of good sportsmanship, Bible study and the positive example of native Liberian coaches to teach discipline and make the kids feel like they are a part of something important. In a country where soccer is so heavily revered, the sport seemed like the best way to get through to the kids.
“I think soccer, personally, is one of the greatest avenues for reaching children,” Seren says. “They want to be a part of it.”
Seren knows first hand the impact that a team atmosphere and a good coach can have on a young person.
“I had coaches…who remarkably changed my life and brought me to Christ and showed me my worth,” Seren says.
But L.A.C.E.S. doesn’t just aim to help the kids. Seren and her team try to involve the entire community and show them how to embrace the youth.
“Communities are coming together for the common good,” she says. “Over time, it’s become a partnership with parents.”
L.A.C.E.S. HAS UNDOUBTEDLY changed Seren’s life.
“Before I came to Liberia, I just felt like I was spinning in circles, not really sure what my direction in life was going to be,” Seren says.
LA.C.E.S. has helped give Seren purpose, she says. It has pointed her down the right path, revealing what is most important to her and where her values lie. As much as the children she works with have affected Seren, she has made an even bigger impact on their lives.
The stories of kids who have turned their lives around are a testament to Seren’s hard work. Having coached over 400 children since its start in 2007, L.A.C.E.S. has brought discipline and self-worth back to the youth and a renewed support and belief in the future to the community.
Seren has seen L.A.C.E.S. from birth through its first three years. It’s her baby. Her husband, Kevin Fryatt, can attest to that.
“It is her life,” Kevin says. “If L.A.C.E.S. went away, I don’t know what her life would look like. When you’re so engrossed in something, it tends to take over.”
But with as humble as Seren is, she will rarely admit to how much change she has brought about in the lives of so many people.
“I started it, but it’s grown so much because of what other people have done – the choices they’ve made and how they’ve invested,” she insists.
As L.A.C.E.S. looks to extend its programs to other areas of Liberia and the world, Seren plans to stick with the organization until she thinks someone else could do a better job, taking the organization in a new direction. No matter what the future holds, her husband is sure she will continue this kind of work.
“She has a servant heart,” he says.