Skip to main content

Alaska Airlines First Officer Helps Fight Poverty With Model Eco-village in Liberia

10/13/2008 6:29 p.m.

Los Angeles-based First Officer Peter Gbelia may fly jets for a living, but the focus of his life is helping people on the other side of the world rise out of desperate poverty.

Gbelia spends most of his free time trying to help people in African villages and cities build new, sustainable communities. Empowerment Society International (ESI), a nonprofit organization he founded, recently partnered with the Ecosa Institute to design a model eco-village in Duayee, Liberia, starting in January.

Gbelia, who lives in the Phoenix area and is working on a master's degree in sustainable development from Arizona State University, has a connection to the war-torn country that dates to his childhood, when he lived there with his father.

Gbelia became motivated to help Africans after a visit there in 2001 for his father's funeral. A native Liberian, the elder Gbelia died while in exile in Nigeria. During that visit, Peter Gbelia also met other family members who had suffered greatly in a long-running civil war. Shortly after, he founded ESI to "help empower the children of sub-Saharan Africa affected by war and conflict, and to treat, prevent and manage AIDS and other diseases, to combat illiteracy and defeat poverty," he says.

Working with local people, Gbelia has created branches in Ghana and Liberia.

Even while working toward this goal, it had been too dangerous to visit Liberia until earlier this year. The Liberian civil war finally ended and Gbelia has since made two trips—in January and again in May. The two-week trips helped Gbelia lay the groundwork for development by learning more about the tremendous needs of the poverty-stricken country and by making contact with local people, government leaders and other aid providers.

On his second visit in May, Gbelia was accompanied by Dr. Gregg McNeil, a Ketchikan doctor whose wife, Kerry McNeil, is an operations agent for Alaska Airlines in Ketchikan. McNeil wanted to see how he could help improve medical care in the area. McNeil was so touched by what he saw that he plans to return to Liberia in mid-November to spend about a year helping establish a community health aide program, teach modern medical techniques and learn tropical medicine.

McNeil recently retired from working for a native corporation in Alaska and sees potential for applying some of the lessons he has learned in Liberia. While there are few trained medical professionals in Liberia, he believes that educating a few people in each village in basic care, such as inoculations, could dramatically improve mortality rates. More than half the children die of malaria before they turn 5, he said.

In his work as an Alaska pilot, Gbelia has met a number of other Alaska employees who have close ties to Africa. Seattle-based Captain Don Ireland traveled to Ghana with his family and visited a refugee camp and medical mission. They helped the family running the medical mission relocate to Liberia. Lyn Strahm, a quality assurance systems analyst, worked at a leprosy clinic in Ganta, Liberia, while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1985-87. Seattle-based Captain David Gilmer spent several weeks teaching basic health care in Tanzania and Uganda over the last few years. Katrina Kithene, manager of e-mail marketing, has helped her husband, a native Kenyan, found a health clinic, which provides essential health care to 18,000 poor Kenyans.

"Alaska has a lot of wonderful employees who do good work every day for their communities," Gbelia says. "I really appreciate Alaska Airlines and the 313th AS Reserve Squadron for giving me the time off to pursue my goals."

In addition to his many other activities, Gbelia is in the Air Force Reserve, based at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash.

While the trips to Liberia were productive and fulfilling, they weren't easy. A food shortage meant the visitors went hungry on many days, Gbelia says, and their visit coincided with the start of the rainy season, which made the roads almost impassable and caused many mechanical breakdowns.

The highlight of Gbelia's trip was a visit to Banliguea, where his father was born. To get there, the group traveled a dusty road deep into the bush. He could not have anticipated the kind of reception he'd receive.

"As we approached the village, a mass of humanity stood on the hill awaiting our arrival," Gbelia writes in his blog. "Goose bumps ran across my skin as hundreds of people sang and danced, and my heart raced along with the rhythm of the massive beating drums. As I got out of our vehicle I was mobbed by people, lost in a sea of family, welcomed back with hundreds of open arms to the place from where my father came. That night, we ate like kings and danced in a circle in the house my father built, where my grandfather lay buried under the floor. I snuck off to sleep, but the entire town celebrated, danced, sung throughout the night, drums beating."

Gbelia also had a chance to see his uncle, the only survivor among five siblings in his family's clan. While his uncle is in poor health, the reunion was joyful and emotional, Gbelia says. "It's so important to know where you've come from. I felt like I was home."

Gbelia met with high-level government officials from his family's county and traveled deep into rural Liberia, where he met with the village clan and tribal leaders. Everywhere he went, Gbelia heard stories of loss from the long-running civil war and persistent poverty that grips Liberia.

United Nations is providing security and help with development, along with many U.S. and international aid agencies that provide food, rebuild roads and offer education and training.

Gbelia is seeking volunteers interested in visiting Liberia to work as community health aides and others to teach self-defense and conflict avoidance, primarily to women.