Lovetta Conto, who fled with her father from Liberia at age 4 to

When Lovetta Conto was 4, she fled with her father from their
Liberian home to Ghana to escape from the civil war devastating
their West African nation. For nine years, she lived in the
Buduburam refugee camp, until a chance meeting that changed her
When Lovetta Conto was 4, she fled with her father from their Liberian home to Ghana to escape from the civil war devastating their West African nation. For nine years, she lived in the Buduburam refugee camp, until a chance meeting that changed her life.

On Nov. 12, Conto, now 17, came to Mount Madonna School, nestled in the hills southwest of Morgan Hill, to share her experiences as a refugee and ambassador for world peace. Articulating a message of hope and individual responsibility, the vibrant young woman spoke with confidence and warmth to the high school students and adults in the “Values in World Thought” class.

She also talked about her participation in the recent “Connecting for Change” peace conference in Vancouver, Canada, where she shared the stage with the Dalai Lama and world-renowned authors and leaders Peter Block, Juanita Brown, Dawna Markova, Peter Senge and Margaret Wheatley.

“Lovetta’s been plucked out by fate and propelled into very unusual circumstances,” said Ward Mailliard, a longtime Mount Madonna social studies teacher and developer of the “Values in World Thought” curriculum. It was during the September “Connecting for Change” conference that Mailliard met Conto.

Canadian producer and director Jess Fraser flew in to film the interview with the Mount Madonna students, and will incorporate it into a documentary about the conference (; Mailliard is co-directing the film.

In the Mount Madonna classroom, Conto sat with some 30 juniors and seniors, their chairs arranged in a circle. As the students asked questions and listened to each other, an array of emotions flickered across their faces as they responded to her story.

At 12, Conto met Cori Stern, an American woman who was at Buduburam teaching refugee health care workers how to administer a medication that prevents mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Stern shared with the girl her plans for helping youth who’ve faced some of life’s great hardships to positively change their future.

Conto told the students of her first-hand experiences with the hundreds of child soldiers scarred by war, children forced into becoming sex slaves, and a society plagued by poverty and hunger. Some students looked away, finding the raw content difficult, while others intently watched her face. And then she smiled, the smile illuminating her whole being, allowing the resilient, confident young woman to shine through.

It’s that inner resilience that Stern first recognized upon meeting Conto, and that contributed to selection as the first Fellow of the Strongheart program, and ultimately helped to determine her life’s path. During those years in Ghana, Conto worked with U.S. aide volunteers to help a build a school – the first tuition-free elementary school at Buduburam – and served as an advocate for children with special needs.

“When I was growing up in the refugee camp,” Conto has written, “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 2008, Conto was chosen as a finalist for the 2008 International Peace Prize. The prize, an initiative of the KidsRights Foundation has the support of the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and is presented by Desmond Tutu. It is awarded annually to exceptional children who have demonstrated great courage or remarkable actions to help protect and improve the lives of children who face great risks or injustices.

“I am happy to have all of these opportunities, but I cannot be a normal teenager,” Conto told the Mount Madonna students. “I’m blessed and I’m grateful, but sometimes I feel alone inside.”

As part of a Strongheart Fellowship, Conto was charged to create a project that would benefit her and the world in some way, and to relate it to her life plans. Despite some uncertainty, she found the courage to pursue a dream of becoming a jewelry designer. She’s created a necklace made from recovered shell casings from the thousands of bullets left behind following the end of Liberia’s civil war in 2003. Learn more at

“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,” she said.

Proceeds from the necklace sales are helping to build Strongheart House, envisioned to be a home and school for children who’ve come from extremely challenging life experiences in different countries, to live together, receive an education, and learn to build a better life. Fundraising for the project is ongoing – Strongheart volunteers are renovating a 10,000-square-foot former hotel, used as a rebel headquarters during the war, and the project is about 50 percent complete.

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

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