Oprah Winfrey was too late to save 6-year-old Mark Kwadwo.
The host of the highest-rated talk show in television history saw a photo of the boy — in ragged clothes, a look of hopelessness in his eyes — on the front page of The New York Times. An accompanying article detailed the lives of children who work in near-slavery in Ghana.
A crew from The Oprah Winfrey Show traveled to the west African nation recently to look for Mark, hoping to free him from the deplorable conditions.
But they didn't find Mark bailing water from a canoe on Lake Volta. They found him in a classroom at the Village of Hope, wearing a bright new school uniform and an equally bright smile.
Millions of viewers saw that smile on the Feb. 9 broadcast of Oprah. Lisa Ling, the show's correspondent and former co-host of The View, spoke to Mark and Fred Asare, director of the Village of Hope, a ministry supported by Churches of Christ and overseen by Searcy, Ark.-based Ghana West Africa Missions.
As many as 1-in-4 children in Ghana work as slaves, Ling said. Many are sold to fishermen by desperate parents. The children, as young as 4, endure 14-hour workdays and severe beatings.
Like Winfrey, Pam Cope, a mother of four in Neosho, Mo., saw the Times story and wanted to help. Cope and her husband, Randy, are members of the Racine Christian Church. In 1999, their 15-year-old son, Jantsen, died suddenly from an undetected heart defect.
In Jantsen's memory, the couple launched Touch a Life, a ministry for orphans in countries including Cambodia and Nicaragua.
“Their grief — and hope — have led them on a journey to try to care for hurting children of the world,” said Randy Cope's brother, Mike, minister for the Highland Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas. “It began in southeast Asia, but has since taken them to places like Haiti, Central America and, now, of course, Ghana.”
Pam Cope contacted an agency in Ghana that helps liberate children from slavery. Mike Cope put her in touch with workers at the Village of Hope. With the help of family and friends, the Copes raised money to rescue Mark and six other children from the fishing boats. On Dec. 21, the children were freed.
“There is nothing that prepares you to enter a room and meet children who have been in slavery,” missionary Tommy Drinnen, who works at the Village of Hope, wrote after meeting the children. “These kids look like life has battered them.”
The children, nicknamed “the magnificent seven,” have since adjusted to their new lives. Pam Cope and her daughter, Crista, a freshman at Abilene Christian University, traveled to Ghana and spent a week with the children at the Village of Hope. Later, Pam Cope traveled to Chicago to tell her story on Oprah.
“I've interviewed thousands of people,” Winfrey told her. “Famous people, rich people … but never has anybody deserved a standing ovation more than you today.”
The Village of Hope's Web site, www.thevillageofhope.com, was overwhelmed after the show aired, said Tom Chisholm, treasurer and trustee of Ghana West Africa Missions.
Drinnen prays for the children still in bondage — and for their masters. For slavery to end, the people who exploit children also must be changed, the missionary said.
“There are many more children,” he said, “and God is working through a lot of people to show us what to do next.”