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Breaking the Chain Through Education built this school in Awate Tornu. Julia and Jessica donated a classroom with money they were given for becoming b’not mitzvah.

Thirteen-year-old Jessica Baer of Fair Lawn was hooked the first time she saw the video.

“The kids were the same age as me,” she said, recalling the first time she saw the film about child slaves in Ghana. “I was trying to compare my life with theirs. I felt very fortunate.”

Jessica saw the video three years ago at Camp Nah-Jee Wah in Milford, Pennsylvania. Evan Robbins, a Metuchen social studies teacher and founder of Breaking the Chain through Education, made a presentation at the YM/YWHA camp “and I was hooked right away,” said Jessica, who is a student at Fair Lawn’s Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Breaking the Chain works to rescue child slaves and help eradicate slave trafficking in Ghana by building schools in impoverished regions.

With her bat mitzvah approaching, Jessica began to engage in mitzvah projects to support Robbins’ organization, selling t-shirts, participating in walkathons – she, her father, and 10 friends joined a walk last Sunday – and donating money she received as gifts.

“All of it goes to the organization. Every penny,” she said. Her sister Julia, two years older, also took part in fundraising efforts and donated a portion of the money she received from her bat mitzvah celebration.

In February, Jessica, her parents, and her sister visited Ghana to see the fruits of their labor. Joining an 8-day trip organized by Robbins, the Baer family saw the school in the village of Awate Tornu that now serves some of the 30 children rescued so far by the organization.

“We’re trying to rescue 20 more,” Jessica said, adding that her family personally met 11 of the rescued children. “We hung out with them,” she said, describing how she and her father, who have both trained as mitzvah clowns, made balloon animals and did magic tricks for the children.

But while the rescued children they met clearly were happy at their newfound freedom, “we saw damaged kids” Jessica said. “We asked them if they still have nightmares and all of them said yes.”

Jessica said that her family has been “on board from the beginning,” sharing her desire to help the young slaves. Her father, Michael Baer, is now a BTCTE board member, and before the trip the family donated a classroom in the new school. Still, she said, visiting the country was “life-changing” for the entire family.

A longtime Bergen County resident ““ his parents owned bakeries in Fort Lee and Englewood ““ Baer spoke proudly of what BTCTE has accomplished, noting that Robbins recently was honored by the New Jersey Education Association. He said that Robbins, who lives in Verona, had an experience similar to Jessica’s, moved to action after reading a New York Times article about child slavery. It detailed the plight of a youngster similar in age to his own.

“He really connected, hearing stories about these children,” Baer said.

Shortly afterwards, Robbins raised the issue of slave trafficking in his social studies class, discussing with his students what might be done to help the child slaves. He also invited former Sudanese slave and human rights activist Simon Deng to speak at his school.

Robbins’ students came up with diverse ways to raise money, ultimately garnering thousands of dollars. Working through the International Organization for Migration – which helps rescue, rehabilitate, and educate trafficked children – he set off for Ghana to meet some of the children and ensure that the money would be spent properly.

Baer explained that the fishing industry in Ghana uses child slaves, some as young as four years old, to untangle fishing nets, bail water, paddle boats, and work as domestic slaves. The children have little clothing, are underfed, and receive no medical care.

BTCTE wants to break this cycle.

“By establishing schools in destitute villages, we provide local fishermen and their families with educational opportunities and alternative ways of earning their living,” the group’s mission statement says. “In exchange the trafficked children they employ are set free and returned to their families.”

Baer recalls that when Jessica came home from camp three years ago after seeing Robbins’ video, “the first words out of her mouth were, ‘We need to help the kids in Ghana.’ She explained how the children are sold by their families to fisherman and have to work 16 hours a day and are beaten. I started to research it and the next year I got to meet Evan. We had no choice,” said Baer, explaining his family’s commitment to the project. “She was doing it and we were in all the way.”

He said that the family’s trip to Ghana coincided with the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the school they helped to finance.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “It’s such a poor country. Most children were barefoot and many had never seen white people. But children are children.” The family brought 350 pounds of donated items – including school supplies and sports equipment – to Ghana, “where they had no supplies at all.”

Baer said that while he does not condone the selling of children, he now understands why it has been done in Ghana.

“There’s a tradition in Ghanian society that if you cannot take care of your children and you have a wealthy relative, you send your children there.” But the tradition, he said, became “bastardized.”

“The fisherman said they were wealthy and would take the children for two years, teach them a trade, and give the family chickens,” Baer said. “But some kids were trafficked for a 12-year period. They have physical and psychological scars.”

He said his family interviewed 11 former slaves and “each had a different story. It was really eye-opening.

“One of the saddest stories was about a boy named Joshua,” he said. Several years ago, Robbins, who had been able to help negotiate the release of other trafficked children, could not work out a way to free Joshua. “He had to leave him there, but he said he would come back.”

And, Baer said, Robbins did as he had promised.

“We went to Joshua’s school. He jumped into Evan’s arms and hugged him.”

“You could feel the connection between them,” Jessica added.

Baer said the existence of so many child slaves is “devastating. A child should be in school. It tore our hearts out.”

Still, he said, there seems to have been some improvement in the situation.

“The equipment is better, and with electric motor boats you don’t need as many children [as slaves],” he said. Indeed, in order to free some children, BTCTE actually bought a motor for one fisherman.

Pointing to the release of the 30 former slaves, Baer said that if his family has played a “tiny part” in helping to free these children, “I’m a happy man.”

He and his wife, Robin, will be speaking about their trip on May 19 at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center. For more information, call (201) 796-5040.