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East Aurora students to walk to Chicago to bring awareness of plight of child soldiers

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Donations to help bring former child soldier Ishmael Beah to East Aurora High School can be sent to:

Shane Gillespie
East Aurora High School
500 Tomcat Lane
Aurora, IL 60505

Gillespie can be reached

Updated: March 18, 2014 6:10AM

AURORA — As a child growing up during Sierra Leone’s violent civil war, Ishmael Beah spent a lot of time walking. He had to. Beah’s home was attacked by rebel forces and he fled, wandering Africa’s deserts and jungles to avoid the rebels.

Beah was later picked up by the government’s army and made to serve as a gun-wielding soldier. He was removed from the fighting by United Nations agents and taken to a rehabilitation center.

It’s an account he tells in his 2007 book “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider.”

To raise awareness about the struggles of child soldiers like Beah, about 75 East Aurora High School seniors will walk 40 miles between Aurora and Soldier Field in Chicago next month — a trip they estimate will take 14 hours.

“Compared to what Ishmael has walked — he’s walked almost his whole life — it’s nothing,” said East High senior Andres Rocha. “We’re trying to do something to represent his suffering.”

The March 26 walk is part of an optional service project in English teacher Shane Gillespie’s “survivor literature” class, which Gillespie created six years ago. Students in the class read and analyze books in which people overcome trauma.

Every year, students choose a topic to research independently. In years past, students have volunteered in New Orleans to help Hurricane Katrina survivors and raised money to have a Holocaust survivor speak to their class.

Students this year chose to research child soldiers, they said, because the problem is ongoing and largely ignored.

“It’s still going on and most people are blind to the fact,” said student Kendall McCarter.

“Even when we were reading the book, it seemed like fiction,” student Andrea Ramirez added.

The students are trying to raise $7,500 to bring Beah to speak to their class and others at East High.

Beah, now 33 and living in New York, published a novel last month called “Radiance of Tomorrow” about post-war life in Sierra Leone.

The students found ways to connect with Beah’s story, even though it is a difficult one.

“The only thing I can connect with is going from place to place and not knowing where you’re going and not have a stable place to go,” said student Frederick Wilson.

The students have a lot of questions they’d like to ask Beah: Has he gotten over what’s happened? Does he think of himself as a survivor? Does he feel responsible for what he did?

“I connected with him sympathetically and I felt his pain, but I don’t know what it feels like to kill someone,” McCarter said. “I feel like it will be a touchy subject, but I’ll ask.”

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