One morning in 2010, in a world far removed from the comforts of home and family, David Whetstone woke to the noise of whispers and giggles. When he peeked through the zippered opening of his tent, he saw a crowd of beautiful children. Every one of them that eagerly awaited his emergence, he would later learn, were orphans whose parents died of waterborne illnesses that continually plague this sub-Saharan region of Africa.
That very moment was life changing for Whetstone, founder of Mentor Leaders, a non-profit organization whose “community-based efforts are aimed at providing basic education, fresh water wells, sanitation, and creating economic stability — all while maintaining the dignity of the culture.” As the children surrounded him in a group hug that June morning, he reflected on the very long journey that led him to Togo, West Africa. It had not been an easy one.
Several years prior, David’s life had taken a devastating turn that cost him everything he had, save his will to live and $28 in rolled coins. As his feet hit the dirt that morning in a village that gave new meaning to the Acts 1:8 phrase “the ends of the earth,” the hugs of some of the most precious children in the world surrounded him, and he knew he was home. Gbentchal would be the place where God would allow him to begin living life to its fullest.
When Whetstone first arrived, he really only knew one thing: he felt compelled to reach the unreached portions of Togo. He attended a conference in the capitol city of Lome, where he met William Koatidja, the man that would eventually become the Mentor Leaders Togolese Field Director.
A short time later, the two set out to explore 29 villages across Togo, armed with a great deal of passion, a tent, a backpack full of supplies, and a motorbike. The villages were chosen specifically because they didn’t have a single fresh water well or a church, and most didn’t have schools.
“I just don’t feel that this is the right place,” David told William when they left the final village on the list. With that, they returned to the nearby city of Dapaong and requested a meeting with the government.
“What is the worst place in all of Togo?” inquired the determined team. With a look that left no doubt, the government officials replied in unison, “Gbentchal.”
“How do we get there from here?” Whetstone asked. “There is no road,” one man replied. “Come back tomorrow morning, I’ll take you.”
With that, the weary travelers made their way back to the hotel and returned the next morning to find that because government officials had arrived from the capitol, the man who promised to take them to Gbentchal was no longer available. Thankfully, their taxi driver overheard the conversation and knew exactly where to go. Off they went to find Gbentchal, a village they learned had been abandoned by the government because no water could be found.
“I had no idea what the condition of the village was, I hadn’t yet met the chief or a single soul that lived there,” Whetstone told Opportunity Lives, “but the minute we stepped foot on those grounds, I looked at one of the guys traveling with us and said ‘this is it. I can feel it.’ I just knew that was the place.”
That June morning in 2010, as he stood surrounded by village orphans, David couldn’t possibly have known the enormous task that lay before him — or the success he would humbly reflect upon just five years later.
Last month, a team of 25 joined Whetstone as he returned to Gbentchal for the fifth anniversary of his first arrival. The initial trip into the village revealed a barren land inhabited by a dying people, a people whose existence was known to God alone. The village chief, when he first met the team, said he had a parcel of land he had been saving for something, though he’d been unsure what it was. Once he learned why they were there, he gifted the land—land that was considered by witchdoctors to be cursed land, and on that land the first Mentor Leaders campus was born.
When viewed from atop the tower of the miraculous fresh water well that now sits in the center, built in 2011, it’s a near perfect circle with clusters of huts surrounding it, as if God Himself was saving the land for something special.
When the team arrived in the early morning hours on August 7, they were met by hundreds of cheering villagers who were gathered just outside a place called the “Hope Center,” where students meet each weekday to eat meals, and villagers meet multiple times each week to worship.
Just across the way sits a structure that houses Pastor Koatidja and his family on one side, a sewing class for girls on the other, and will one day serve as the medical clinic for the village. Out the front door, a small tin structure can be seen where village women cook for orphans who are part of the sponsorship program started by Mentor Leaders — a program that gives Americans an opportunity to send over 200 village children, including many orphans, to school each day.
Down the road a short distance sits not one, but three structures built to house teams that come to help multiple times each year. A little further still sits the beautiful two-story Will Smith Academy (built in 2013) and across from it, a one story addition, built earlier this year — a school that now enjoys the distinction of being one of the top schools in all of Togo.
The village is becoming self-sustaining. Surrounding the beautiful campus are thriving farms, whose crops of cotton and maize look more beautiful with each passing year. Behind the medical clinic is a gorgeous garden full of fresh vegetables, and beyond that, not too far away is a goat farm that provides an income for hard working villagers.
Soon, a cattle farm will be built — and the dream of giving a village that had absolutely no hope a hand up, instead of a handout, is being realized. With the success of the school, the government of Togo is now paying attention, and plans are being considered for eventually bringing roads and some electricity into the region — something the people of Gbentchal never even dreamed of.
“It feels good to do and give, and there is a desperate need,” said Whetstone, “but there is also a need to give villagers the tools they need to take care of themselves, to ensure that in the end, they are successful. We always knew that success would equal sustainability, and five years later, we are beginning to see success take root. To God be the glory. It has been an absolute joy to see the changes take place.”
No doubt it has. Five years, countless hours of prayer, hard work, and the dedication of many selfless individuals who have given both time and finances — the village of Gbentchal is no longer the worst village in all of Togo. In fact, some might argue it’s now one of the best.
This article was originally written by me and published by Opportunity Lives on September 25, 2015. Photo credit: Anna Nantz.