Haley Fox  [Photo by Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Profile]

Haley Fox [Photo by Diane Urbani de la Paz/Peninsula Profile]

PENINSULA PROFILE: Woman puts her heart into helping children in Third World nations

PORT ANGELES — Michael Rivers is planning an elaborate party for a friend this Friday night. It could be quite the memorable bash; Rivers is inviting everybody in town to come out for live music, performance painting, food and drink — all because of a message he found in his email box about two years ago.

The email came from Hailey Fox, a friend of the Rivers family. She was in Cameroon, teaching at the Buea School for the Deaf, and she needed help not for herself, but for the 110 children in her care.

“It said, ‘This organization is in desperate need. Can anyone think of anything?’” Rivers recalled. Though Fox had been sent by the Peace Corps to work at the Buea School, it receives no support from the Cameroonian government.

In response, Rivers wrote to Fox that yes, he could think of something. A building contractor who is also a singer-songwriter and the founder of the Peninsula Men’s Gospel Singers, he has more than a few connections in this community.

For one: Rivers’ son David, who is about Fox’s age, had recently formed a band called Abby Mae & the Homeschool Boys. The quartet was already wowing audiences with its blend of old-time folk and modern rock, so Rivers thought it might be fun to rope them in for a benefit concert.

The elder Rivers had recently held a fundraiser of his own at Studio Bob, the art gallery and event space in downtown Port Angeles. It was his 50th birthday party — and what he called “the Haiti benefit,” specifically an event that raised some $1,600 for Midwives for Haiti, an organization Rivers’ wife Nancy, a nurse, had volunteered with.

And so Rivers thought: Why not have a “Hailey benefit,” and raise money for the Buea School? It could be held at Studio Bob, and feature his son’s band.

But there was a problem, sort of. Abby Mae & the Homeschool Boys’ popularity had begun to grow, and grow some more. In the two years since its first gig at Wine on the Waterfront, the band has played many a packed house, been invited to the Folklife and Wintergrass festivals in Seattle and Bellevue respectively and is now recording its second six-track CD.

“Coordinating with their hectic schedule proved a challenge, and a few tentative dates got scratched along the way,” River said in an interview last week.

Then, in March, David Rivers announced that since bassist Hayden Pomeroy and Joey Gish were headed off to college, and Abby Latson was forming a new band, Abby Mae was about to break up. Only a few performances are left in their schedule, including one to celebrate the release of the group’s CD. Which is now the farewell record.

David Rivers and his band, however, had no intention of quitting before playing a fundraising concert for Fox and the Buea School. And after all this time, they found a date: May 4.

Fox, 25 and home now from Cameroon but still connected with the Buea School, isn’t about to have it be called the Hailey benefit.

Rivers and company, in a nod to the band’s Appalachian folk flavors, instead named it the Hoedown Benefit.

Abby Mae & the Homeschool Boys are donating their time — and Rivers is in full promotion mode, talking about it and putting up posters and Facebook posts.

Fox, for her part, will speak about the deaf children she worked with and about disabled children’s rights during the event, which will start at 7 p.m. Friday at Studio Bob, 1181/2 E. Front St.

During a break from working her two jobs in Port Angeles — at Wine on the Waterfront and at the Renaissance cafe — Fox marveled at how the benefit has come together. While Michael Rivers started the process, David Rivers rallied more friends, including artist Jeff Tocher, who’s known for his performance paintings at Port Angeles concerts. Tocher invited two other artists, Johnny Rickenbacher and Sarah Tucker, to make it a triptych of live art-makers.

The younger Rivers wasn’t finished of course; he called on his musical connections across the Northwest and brought in Nettle Honey, an old-time-and-bluegrass band from Bellingham.

Michael Lynch of Michael’s Divine Dining was invited in to provide refreshments; then Witherow &Gibson, a local folk duo, was added to the musical menu.

David Rivers, a graphic artist as well as a guitarist, built a poster for the event, with Fox’s image in the foreground.

To Fox’s mind, though, the focus of all of this should not be on her, but on how one group of people has come together to reach out, across oceans, to another.

“I want it to be about the kids [at the Buea School] and about the community,” she said.

The young Cameroonians she worked with struggle for just about everything, from electricity to textbooks. And Fox found teaching exhausting: a job that never ends, whether one’s in the classroom or working after hours, helping kids, grading papers or planning lessons.

Fox joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in international relations. She had her heart set on serving in Latin America but was sent to West Africa, where she had to learn not only French, the still-spoken colonial language, but also sign language to communicate with her deaf students.

She also gained an education in the ways of the Third World, where nothing is easy for people with any type of handicap.

“In developing countries, the first populations that go by the wayside are the disabled,” added Fox, who followed her two years of Peace Corps service at the Buea School with another six months of work in

the Philippines.

There, with a program called Peace Corps Response, she worked on Break the Silence, an effort to prevent sexual abuse and trafficking of deaf youth. Among other work, Fox spearheaded the holding of educational sessions at the Philippine School for the Deaf.

She returned home to Sequim in February, and began working to save money for graduate school; she hopes to one day earn a master’s in international development to continue her work for disabled children’s rights.

Fox left for Africa in 2009, the year she turned 23. She had finished her bachelor’s in international relations at the University of Washington — and had been through more than her share of personal trials.

When Fox was 16, her father Jerry Williamson, a physician’s assistant at CliniCare in Port Angeles, died of brain cancer.

He was just 55, and left his wife Lyell Fox and their children — Hailey and her younger sister, Anna, and their older siblings Isaac, Keri and Kaci — bereft.

That was September 2002. Less than a year later, Hailey Fox took a terrible fall. Slipping from a rope swing at a friend’s home on Sieberts Creek, she landed some 35 feet down in a ravine. She was then airlifted in critical condition to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Fox had a broken back and a brain injury. But in spite of doctors’ predictions, she regained consciousness; after lying paralyzed for a month, she relearned how to walk — and relearned a lot of other things, like all the math she’d had up through high school.

“It was a really rough senior year,” is about all she says now.

Michael Rivers recalls all of it vividly.

“In a short course of time, I watched the family suffer through the loss of their husband/father, and then the crazy accident that Hailey had,” he said.

“I remember praying some really angry prayers: ‘Come on, this family has suffered so much.’”

But despite doctors’ predictions, Fox recovered.

“And what does she do with her life? She gives it,” Rivers added.

In her compassion, she has found her passion: in speaking for those who would otherwise have no voice.

In the Philippines, she trained local nongovernmental organizations in grant writing and other fundraising, in order to help them set up programs for deaf youth.

In the developing world, Fox said, a youngster with any kind of disability finds few resources when it comes to basic living. Everything is a battle, from going to school to getting a job.

Working in Cameroon and in the Philippines has, of course, given Fox new perspective on the resources that are available in the United States. No place is perfect, of course, but this country does have well-funded programs and schools for the deaf.

One is Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., where Fox’s mentors studied. Aloysius N’jok Bibum, a Cameroonian, and his wife Margaret Lloyd Bibum, who is British, are the founders of the Buea School. Both are deaf; they opened the school in 2003 against all odds.

“They did this in a country that doesn’t recognize them at all,” Fox said. “They have given a lot of kids a chance to get an education.”

Proceeds from Friday’s event will carry that forward. And Fox is filled with gratitude for her friend Michael Rivers, who turned a concert into something bigger than just a couple of bands.

“It means so much to me,” she said, “that he and his son [David] are putting so much into this event . . . and that the community is coming together.”

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