Teacher wins award for working to free child slaves

Staff Writer

 Evan Robbins, center, is surrounded by some of the children he and his organization have helped in Africa. Evan Robbins, center, is surrounded by some of the children he and his organization have helped in Africa. METUCHEN — A mission that began in 2006 to rescue African children from the chains of slavery has earned a Metuchen High School teacher national recognition.

Evan Robbins, a social studies instructor in the borough for 17 years, has won the 2014 National Education Association (NEA) Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award.

Robbins received the honor for his work with a nonprofit that he founded several years ago. Breaking the Chain Through Education, which began as a club at Metuchen High School, has freed nearly 30 child slaves in Ghana, he said.

“The basics are really simple,” Robbins said. “No kid should be a slave. No kid should be abused. All kids belong in school.”

Last year, former President Jimmy Carter won the same award. Malala Yousafzai, the young woman from Pakistan who was shot by a member of the Taliban in 2012, and Coretta Scott King, the now-deceased widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will also receive awards from the NEA this year, according to the group’s website.

Robbins said it seemed “kind of crazy” that he was chosen, but the activist has fought for his place in that prestigious group. In addition to liberating child slaves, Robbins and his colleagues built a school and four housing units for teachers at the village of Awate Tornu, Ghana, he said.

About 20 former victims of child trafficking now attend the school for an opportunity to start anew, according to Robbins. He said villagers have also added dwellings for educators in recent years, signaling a change in the mentality of the mostly illiterate community.

“That was incredibly rewarding, to see that they had taken it on themselves and made it their own project,” he said.

In interviews with released children, Robbins learned that the slaves often drown at the hands of fishing nets. Others suffer beatings after they return with fewer fish than expected by their masters, he said.

While the horror stories take a toll on Robbins, he said he draws inspiration from prior accomplishments to conquer the tasks ahead.

“… I need to focus on the ones we saved instead of the ones we haven’t, or I couldn’t continue,” Robbins said.

Right now, student-run fundraisers often rake in thousands of dollars for Breaking the Chain Through Education, he said.

The Reg Weaver award will not yield a cash prize, but Robbins said he hopes the credit will generate more visibility — and more money — for the organization.

“I’m hoping that we can get more attention, raise more money and help more kids,” he said.

Robbins will receive the award at a ceremony on July 2 in Denver, Col., in front of 1,700 residents from across the nation.