Patrick Steele: Making a Difference in West Africa

Last Friday, I had the privilege of meeting Patrick Steele, his wife, Carrie, and his son, Jack. I had traveled to Orange and San Diego counties on college business, and as I left San Diego late Friday afternoon, I decided to see if I could connect with Patrick, who lives in San Clemente. We had never met, but Patrick is well known and remembered for his intellect and spirit and the tragic, life-threatening accident in 1997 that left him paralyzed from the chest down. As he was preparing for his Spring Sing skit just six weeks before graduation, the practice went terribly wrong, and Patrick was injured permanently.

Patrick, Carrie and Jack Steele

Thursday night, I ate dinner with his parents, Kirk and Bonnie Steele. As we talked, they mentioned Patrick’s incredible passion for a ministry he had launched in Ghana called Open University of West Africa. I was intrigued by a man who was finding a way to make a difference in our world despite his physical limitations. By God’s grace, Patrick was available to meet. As I plowed through traffic headed out of San Diego for the weekend, we agreed to rendezvous at his parents’ home in San Clemente. I’m so glad we did.

We sat on a patio overlooking the pier at San Clemente and distant Catalina Island, and I listened to how Patrick’s vision for Open University of West Africa (OUWA) first developed. When he visited Africa, he saw the incredible, wasted potential of a whole generation deprived of opportunity because they lack an education. With few job prospects and little chance to acquire the skills and learning they need to succeed, this generation of West Africans has no clear way to develop their untapped potential. Barely able to survive and battling the realities of subsistence living, the individuals Patrick encountered were incredibly capable but lacked hope and received little help. Recognizing that access to higher education in West Africa is extremely limited (about 3 percent of college-age students are enrolled in a university), Patrick realized the only way to improve the fortunes of these impoverished nations was addressing the glaring lack of educational opportunity, which prevented access to the knowledge-based, global economy. In the white paper Patrick wrote to raise capital for his new venture, he summarized the challenge: “Without the human capital necessary for value-added products to be created, consumed, exported and imported in all countries, the less fortunate amongst us will remain based on neo-colonially influenced, subsistence economic models, which are often focused on raw material exporting. This will continue to increase the worldwide disparity in quality of life.”

This dream and vision impressed me, and I found Patrick’s longing to see change and improvement in the lives of others especially compelling. As he shared his story, he mentioned how much he loved Westmont, how the long road to recovery included making peace with all aspects of his life, even the concluding chapter of his college experience. His memories of Westmont focus on the people who cared for him, who challenged and supported him, and who gave him the knowledge and outlook that made him open and receptive to changing the lives of West Africans mired in poverty. In particular, he mentioned his experience with the International Business Institute, when he traveled through Europe and learned about economies and business practices in the mid-1990s. He also spoke about enduring friendships and the joy he finds in hearing from his friends. He was especially grateful for Professor Greg Spencer, his academic adviser in communication studies and a true friend, and for the incredible love and support he receives from his wife, son and extended family.

We visited for about an hour. I needed to head home to Santa Barbara, but just as the sun lingered on the horizon that evening in San Clemente, my mind continues to dwell on Patrick. What gives us the capacity as humans and followers of God to find the deepest joy and satisfaction for our lives in meeting the needs of others? I keep thinking about the gratefulness in Patrick’s voice as he talked about the people who have helped him and his hope that he can somehow assist those less fortunate in West Africa. I rarely profile specific ministries, but I encourage you to visit their website, http://www.OUWA.org, and see what Open University of West Africa is doing. This dream has become a reality because one person cared enough to see what God would do if he walked forward in obedience and used all the ingenuity and creativity his mind could muster to change the lives and destinies of others. May God bless their work, and may Patrick persevere in fulfilling the vision God has awakened in his heart and mind.

Blessings and God’s best, Gayle D. Beebe

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