Guitarist plays to benefit children in Ghana

When Enrique Henao returns to Spokane on Feb. 18 to play for the Children of Northwest Ghana Benefit Concert, it will be a homecoming of sorts. Though born in Colombia, Henao graduated from University High School in 1970.

While he currently resides in Edmonds, Wash., he recently attended his 40th class reunion, and said, “Spokane is my second home.”

A renowned classical guitarist, Henao said his father was his mentor. “He played the guitar for me while I was in my mother’s stomach!”

Henao came to Spokane on Feb. 21, 1969, to finish his education and launch his career. His arrival coincided with an incredibly snowy winter, but the warm welcome he received from his adopted homeland made up for the chilly weather.

That kind reception and the support he found here enabled him to launch an international music career. However, it’s his heart for children in developing countries that brings him back this month.

He’s headlining a concert to benefit another homegrown success story: International Assistance Program. Since 1990, IAP has impacted the lives of thousands of people in countries around the world. The organization links Christian businesspeople with projects as varied as facilitating microloan programs, digging wells and opening medical clinics.

Several years ago, while in Ghana, IAP board members, Maurice “Moe” Gress and Ron Phillips were approached by Joseph Appiah, a local “church planter,” someone who builds local congregations. He told them 35 orphaned or abandoned children, scattered throughout four villages were in need of a home.

That need compelled the men to bring the case to IAP. Within six months they found a building, hired staff and established the Sawla Children’s Home in northwest Ghana.

Since the Children’s Home opened, Gress and his wife, Sandi, have returned several times, along with Phillips and his wife, Diane. “It’s an amazing, overwhelming experience,” said Sandi Gress. “The kids in the home are not considered adoptable. They are the property of and under the jurisdiction of the local chiefs.”

The two couples have watched the children, ages 5 to 16, thrive and mature.

“It’s unusual for girls in Africa to go to school past the second or third grade,” Ron Phillips said. “One girl asked me, ‘How long will I be able to stay here and go to school?’ ”

Thanks to the Sawla Children’s Home all of the kids attend nearby schools. The home currently houses 38 children and employs a house mother, a matron, three cooks, two security guards, two tutors and a director. Now, Phillips said, when he visits Ghana, the children excitedly chatter about becoming doctors or teachers.

Unfortunately, the high schools are located in other cities. Gress said a portion of the funds generated from the concert will help older students continue their education. However, the focus remains on strengthening the stability of the Children’s Home. “From there we can branch out into other opportunities,” she said.

In fact, IAP has already helped assure clean drinking water for many people in northwest Ghana. Gress said, “We’ve put wells in three different villages.”

And more opportunities await. Phillips said, “There are 225 villages in that district – just off dirt trails.”

As Gress reflected on the tremendous need she’s seen in Ghana, she said, “Words can’t express the feelings – when you travel to a Third World country, you don’t come back unchanged.”

Henao echoed that sentiment. He’s performed in more than 80 countries throughout his career. He’s seen displaced children in Sudan, Cambodia, Vietnam and his own Colombia.

He said in addition to raising funds for a worthy cause, this homecoming concert is a way for him to “say thank you to the people of Spokane for welcoming a person from another country.”

Concertgoers will hear the influences of Henao’s travel as he plays classical tunes from Italy, Spain, France and some Hungarian gypsy melodies.

Speakers from IAP will update the crowd regarding the status of the ministry in Ghana, and guests will be seeing plenty of pictures from the Sawla Children’s Home.

Gress said she’s profoundly thankful she’s been able to get to know these children. “Watching them grow, seeing them nurtured … ” she paused. “They’re going to be good productive citizens in Ghana because they’ve had the opportunity to better themselves and their community.”

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