Spreading Farming Tips and The Gospel in Liberia

They aren’t really having a midlife crisis. Frankfort’s Travis and Gina Sheets just want to do something significant with the second half of their lives.

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By Russ Pulliam

Gina is a top economic development official in state government, and Travis is a county councilman in Clinton County.

Liberia will be their new home next year, with an assist from a local think tank, the Sagamore Institute. They’ll take their farm skills, and they also want to offer the gospel in the Christian missionary tradition.

Earlier this year they heard Liberian social activist Leymah Gbowee speak at Sagamore about the peace and reconciliation movement she helped to lead, to end 15 years of civil war there. At Sagamore they also have learned that 250 nonprofit groups in Indiana are connected to helping efforts in Liberia.

They plan to help farmers through the Liberia International Christian College, something like county extension agents, to move the country from importing 90 percent of its food to exporting.

“There’s so much there in terms of natural resources,” says Gina, who is finishing up as the top economic development official for Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman. “There’s a lot of opportunity in Liberia. The people are willing, but they have lost so much.”

Founded by freed American slaves in the 1840s, Liberia was devastated in a 1990s civil war.

The couple will live without electricity or running water. In physical fitness, they are better prepared than most Americans. Travis has done short-term missions work in South America and Asia. He also competes in Ironman triathlons. Gina runs even farther in ultra races, or 80 miles.

They’ve sold their cattle in Frankfort. Not having children, they plan to move next year, with a minimum five-year commitment.

They recently met with Marve Norman, the grandson of a Liberian president, William Tolbert, who was killed in a 1980 military coup against the government. Norman grew up in Ivory Coast and is working on a doctorate at Northwestern University. “Harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit, that is the missing link in Liberia,” he said. “A lot of the young people have a short-term day-to-day survival perspective.”

With so much food imported, the Sheets team hopes that rural families can learn skills to grow their own food and sell some as well, eventually offering a middle-class family income.

They know it is a complex challenge — economic development and simple farming techniques blended with the Gospel. They see it not as a midlife crisis, but an opportunity to use their gifts and talents in a place of great humanitarian need.

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