THE DESIGNER AND THE STORY: MEET LOVETTA CONTO

Lovetta Conto, finalist for The International Children's Peace Prize 2008, given by KidsRight and The Nobel Peace Prize Winner's Committee.
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My name is Lovetta Conto and I’m seventeen years old. I was born in Liberia, West Africa but fled to Ghana as a refugee with my father when I was just a little girl because of the civil war in our country. Hundreds of thousands of people left the country.

In Africa, everywhere you turn you are told, “It ain’t gonna happen”. But my dad would always say "Keep walking. Press on. It's going to happen." He was right.

When I was growing up in the refugee camp, life didn’t look like it was going anywhere for me or anybody else. But going through the war gave me my strength, and I knew it was not the end of my life. I envisioned myself as a tree growing up, growing fruit and giving my fruit to other people who needed help. My imagination saw me as more than I was. I knew I had to create a future for myself.

In the refugee camp we had a school. I wanted to get an education and so I went. My dad taught me education was the way to raise your life up. My dad taught me to believe in my dreams. My dad worked hard to get money to support us and pay for my education because school is not free in most of Africa, not even in the refugee camp.

A lot of times we didn’t have food to eat before school. If we couldn’t pay my school fees, I would be kicked out of school, which happened sometimes no matter how hard my father worked to put the money together. After school I didn’t always get to do my homework until late because I would have to spend many hours fetching water for cooking and bathing. But I knew I had to get an education so I kept going. I had to prepare myself to go for my future.

When I was twelve years old, I met Cori Stern, the co-founder of Strongheart Fellowship, in the refugee camp where I lived. I was so nervous talking to her for the first time. I didn’t know who she was but something in me told me she would be someone important to my future.

She told me about her plans to help young people with hard lives change their future, so that they could one day help other people. The organization she started was called Strongheart Fellowship because of the quote from the writer named Hemingway, “The world breaks us all and after some are stronger in the broken places.”

I was chosen as the first Strongheart Fellow, which meant my life changed completely. I’ve traveled and studied and grown. I am finally getting the education my father dreamed of for me. Most importantly, I’ve become stronger in my own broken places. That is why I say I am not ashamed of my past. It has made me who I am. It does hurt – sometimes I wonder why I was born into war and strife – but I always hold on to what my father taught me and to the strength I gained through our struggles.

One of the other very important things I’ve learned is to study my own heart and to listen to what it tells me. As part of my Strongheart Fellowship, I had to create a project that would help me and the world in some way. It also had to relate to what I might want to do with my future.

Even something as ugly as a bullet that was fired in a war can be made beautiful if you are willing to work to change it into something else.

At first my dream was to be a lawyer because I thought that was what would make my father proud. I had no idea what to do for my project related to law. Nothing seemed right. I wanted to make my father proud but something in me pulled me to fashion and design. No matter how down the women in the refugee camp were, they always found a way to express themselves with beautiful jewelry and clothes they made from what they had. I was so scared to admit to my father, to Strongheart and to myself that my true passion was not law but design.

Some people may say, “Why should a girl who comes from a place where people struggle to get food care about fashion or jewelry?” But I believe that your spirit wants beauty no matter your conditions. Even something as ugly as a bullet that was fired in a war can be made beautiful if you are willing to work to change it into something else.

I got up the courage to tell the truth about what I really wanted – to be a designer - and everything happened from there. I designed the AKAWELLE™ necklace, encouraged by a whole team of people who came together to make my dream possible. Many amazing people have cared about me and helped me learn. Every day, I know I am lucky.

MY PURPOSE

I am now helping other people too. The money from my necklace goes to my future and to help create the first Strongheart House, where I live along with other young people like me.

We have a global family. My brothers and sisters will have different color skin but all one strong heart.
The house is in my home country of Liberia but young people from hard lives all over the planet are invited to come live there. We have a global family. My brothers and sisters all have different color skin but all one strong heart.

My larger dream is not only fashion. It’s to take what I have learned and help other kids with difficult lives to understand that there's a bigger world than the one they might have grown up in. I want them to know it’s okay to be who they are and let their spirit guide who they want to be.

I want them to know that life can change, that good can come. As my dad would say "Keep walking. Press on. It's going to happen."


NOTE FROM STRONGHEART FELLOWSHIP ON LOVETTA

During the course of her Fellowship, Lovetta has traveled to the U.S. and has had the experience of meeting other young people from places as diverse as Nepal, Tibet, Sudan, inner-city Los Angeles and rural Texas. In addition to Akawelle™, Lovetta has future plans for another project born of her love of fashion and design: a teen magazine for African young people.

The proceeds from the sale of Akawelle™ necklaces go to Lovetta’s future and to Strongheart House, a home and school for Strongheart Fellows. It is located in Liberia, which is now peaceful and lead by Africa’s first female elected president, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist. Strongheart House will be Lovetta’s home until college.

Lovetta has been featured on television, appeared in newspaper articles, and been highlighted on radio. She has been an honored speaker at the Texas Governor's Women's Conference where her speech received a standing ovation.  She has spoken at The Aspen Institute, on a panel entitled PROFILES IN RESILIENCE, as well as for Quaker Foods International. She was a top finalist for The International Children's Peace Prize, given by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate's Committee. Lovetta currently attends the African Leadership Academy in South Africa.

She is on the board of directors of Strongheart Liberia and is actively involved in creating Strongheart House in Liberia.



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