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Never too late to lend a hand

Brothers' Helpers founder is preparing for a trip to Ghana to aid the poor.

June 24, 2010|By Michael J. Arvizu, michael.arvizu@latimes.com

John Olsen, founder and executive director of St. Bede Catholic Church's Brothers' Helpers, will travel to Ghana later this month as a missionary.

Olsen, 77, will take the trip alone, his second since first visiting Ghana last year. He will spend 10 months there, working with Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wa, the home diocese of former St. Bede priest-in-residence the Rev. Gregory Dongkore, who spent two years at the local church advocating for resources to assist Wa's diocesan schools.

Brothers' Helpers feeds and clothes the poor of Los Angeles' skid row, serving about 2,000 meals a week. Olsen will step down from the position and become chairman emeritus at the end of June, shortly before leaving for Ghana.

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Olsen's last trip was inspired by his desire to do missionary work. He feels he has completed his work with Brothers' Helpers, saying that the work can easily be done by the group's roughly 100 volunteers when he leaves.

"I feel that it's gonna go whether I'm here or not," said Olsen of Brothers' Helpers, which he founded in 2003. "I've wanted to go to Africa for years, actually."

When trying to join a religious community several years ago, Olsen was told he was too old to go on missionary trips. So he began Brothers' Helpers. When the opportunity came to travel to Africa last year, he jumped at the opportunity, traveling with former St. Bede parishioner Rebecca Kerr.

"Things here can run smoothly without him," Kerr said. "It has gotten to the point where Brothers' Helpers will keep going."

Before visiting Ghana the first time, Olsen did not know what to expect. He knew that the diocese's 267 Catholic schools needed money, but any money he could raise would be akin to a grain of sand on the beach, he said, as the impact would be negligible. Of those students who attend primary school in Ghana, about 25% to 30% go on to attend high school. Most of the region's high schools are boarding schools and in better condition, Olsen said.

"I think what he'll accomplish is uniting our work, our efforts with theirs and be a link of goodwill and communication with Ghana," said Brothers' Helpers volunteer Liz Henry. "We also want to be able to help Ghana. Hopefully he'll be able to form a group of people from the community to help one another as he's doing here at the church."

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