The story of Peter Gbelia, an LAX-based first officer, reads like a compelling novel or a blockbuster feature film. Born in Spokane, Wash., he lived five years of his childhood with his father in Liberia after his parents separated. He returned to the United States in 1982 just as civil war was breaking out in the troubled country. He went on to become a successful Air Force officer and now a pilot with Alaska Airlines. His father, who had studied law in the United States, fled Liberia, where his political activism had angered ruler and warlord Charles Taylor. While he has not been to Liberia for 25 years, the younger Gbelia has never forgotten the country he considers his homeland, or the many people who are suffering there today. That’s why the 36-year-old, who has flown 737s for Alaska since fall 2006, is taking a leave of absence in January to visit Liberia for the first time as part of his work with a nonprofit he started four years ago.
Gbelia founded the Empowerment Society International (ESI), headquartered in Chandler, Ariz., to help children of sub-Saharan Africa recover from war and oppression. Since then, he’s created branches in Ghana and Liberia and obtained tax-exempt, nonprofit status.
Even while he has been helping Liberians for years with donations, Gbelia has been unable to go there in person because the war made it too dangerous. Now, the war has ended and it is safer, even though there is still extreme poverty, he said.
During his time there, he hopes to form new partnerships and meet with people who are working on projects his foundation has helped fund. An uncle heads a school district there.
Gbelia became motivated to help Africans after a visit there in 2001. His father, a native Liberian, died while in exile in Nigeria. He also met other family members who had suffered greatly in the war.
"I vowed to help prevent such senseless wars from devastating families and countries," Gbelia said. "When I traveled to Africa for the funeral (in Ibadan, Nigeria), I also stopped by the many refugee camps along the way (in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana) and made some contacts and asked what I could do to help."
At the time, Gbelia was serving as a C-17 pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He still serves in the Air Force reserves, based at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash.
He started out by sponsoring individuals and then groups in the refugee camps. Since then his ambitions have grown substantially. He has seen groups build wells and provide food and then leave. The people still need ongoing support and education to improve their lives over the long run, he said.
The ESI has partnered with the Tufeia Foundation to provide food and health care for more than 6,000 people, mostly orphaned children and former child-soldiers in Ganta, Northern Liberia. The city of Ganta gave the Tufeia Foundation over 600 acres to develop. ESI is helping plan a new community that will include a university, medical clinic, agricultural projects and a sports complex, Gbelia said.
In Ghana, Gbelia is working to improve squalid conditions at the Buduburam Refugee Camp, home to 35,000 refugees from Liberia, Sudan and Somalia. ESI is partnering with World Vision to rebuild the camp’s water infrastructure and is studying the feasibility of making biofuels from local stores of sugar cane and other crops.
In addition to caring for people, Gbelia’s work focuses on caring for the earth. All the projects he is involved in incorporate "sustainable development," reducing waste and using resources that can be replenished.
To that end, Gbelia has received LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) accreditation, currently the industry standard for environmentally friendly construction. He is a graduate student at Arizona State University, studying sustainable sciences.
Gbelia is modest about his desire to help others.
"I’ve always been this way, the type that wants to help others and make the world a better place, just like all my Alaska Airlines mates I work with everyday," he said. "So I don’t think there is anything at all different about me than the next guy, other than I’m single and have a little bit more time on my hands."
The Web site for Gbelia’s organization is www.empowermentsociety.com. The organization invites the public to volunteer time and expertise or donate money via the Web site.
Source: Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air
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