Capturing a full life

By Abigail Harper

Portrait of Appleton who is preparing to become a doctor of psychology. Photo by provided by Alphanso AppletonSophomore surfer from Liberia says if life sends crushing waves, use them to push yourself forward and enjoy the view

Born in the middle of the Liberian Civil War, Alphanso Appleton said his childhood was spent on the run, displaced and separated from family. As a young adult, he shared he held his baby girl as she died.

A sophomore studying social work at BYU–Hawaii, Appleton, said he plans to return to Liberia to make a tangible change. Through a nonprofit organization, he explained he used surfing to make a difference and photography to transform how others perceived his world.

Appleton, also known as Fonzie, said when he was growing up the media only portrayed the worst of Liberia, like child soldiers, trauma and poverty. “Those things do exist, and to just turn away and say it doesn’t, that’s a problem,” said Appleton. “However, I think that just portraying people with a single image over and over again robs them of their identity. ”

Through the nonprofit organization Strongheart, Appleton said he learned and became passionate about photography. “When I picked up the camera,” he said, “my goal was to help give people a fresh perspective on Liberia.” He said he wanted to show the world Liberia is beautiful, the people there are happy and want a better life but lack opportunities.

People who have benefited from the Liberian Surfer Association.
Photo by provided by Alphanso Appleton

Photography wasn’t the only skill Strongheart taught Appleton. With the nonprofit’s help, he said he and a few others started the Robertsport Club, later known as the Liberian Surfing Association. The association’s goals are to give young people a safe space to learn surfing, promote positivity, and build deep connections, explained Appleton.

The club provides scholarships for local youth, said Appleton, and a surf house where they could do homework, make art, or check out surfboards to hit the waves.

Photo by provided by Alphanso Appleton

Growing up in West Africa was a combination of happy and sad experiences, explained Appleton.His hometown, Robertsport, was a main stronghold for the rebels in the Liberian Civil War, he shared. “Long story short, it got really unsafe to live there at one point, so my family fled one night in a little fishing canoe,” said Appleton.

Appleton said he was about 4 or 5 on the night they fled, so he only remembers bits and pieces of the event. “I remember a lot of chaos,” he recalled, “and a lot of running and being constantly scared.”

Knowing about God helped Appleton through life’s challenges, he said. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, attending church up to three times a week. Appleton believes faith in God can also translate into having faith in oneself. Being separated from his family and later leaving them was hard, he said, but faith in God and in himself got him through it. After settling down for a time,

Appleton’s family had to flee again, he said. When he was around 10 or 11, Appleton shared his displaced family slept in abandoned hotels. Food was hard to come by during that time, so Appleton and his friends would go to the port to fish or look for things to eat. On one of these excursions, Appleton said he got separated from his family. While apart from his family, Appleton said all he did was fish, spend time with friends and hope he didn’t die. But he said he also felt a lot of comfort. “I didn’t feel alone because I was with a lot of people who were the same age and who didn’t have a family, so we were support for each other.

“I think my growing up in Liberia had a lot of extreme circumstances, but overall, I got to be with people who I love and who loved me too,” Appleton said with a smile.

Appleton, who co-founded the Liberian Surfing Association walks along the beach.
Photo by provided by Alphanso Appleton

After the war ended, Appleton said he was reunited with his family through non-profit organizations that were working in the displacement camps. Once they were together again, Appleton’s family moved back to Robertsport. Appleton said during their time apart, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever see his family again or if the war would end. It was a huge relief and comfort, he said, to be back with his family in the place he was born.

Watching his world fall apart

Appleton’s forearm bears the tattooed letters L I S A. “It’s the name of my daughter, named after my mother,” he said. As a young man, Appleton said he became a father, adding becoming a parent can make life unpredictable. “It’s a lot of responsibility, but at the same time, it is such a great joy to watch them grow each and every day,” he explained.

While at work one day, Appleton said he received a call that Lisa was in the emergency room. At 18 months old, Lisa was hit by a car, he said. Doctors were able to stabilize her, but the day after the accident, Appleton said he could tell how bad her situation was. On the third day, Appleton got into an ambulance with his daughter and drove four hours to the hospital in the nearest city.Lisa passed at 5 a.m. that morning, said Appleton. “I’ve seen people die and people I care about, but I’ve never felt death like that,” said Appleton.

Seven years after the accident, Appleton said he is still working on getting better. He said a part of him was ripped out and broke that day. “I think it is one of the worst things anyone can ever ace,” said Appleton, “to watch your child die right in front of you.” He said he prays to God that Lisa is in a better place.

Leaving Liberia

While the work he did with the Liberian Surfing Association was rewarding and satisfying, said Appleton, he wanted to do more.“ There is nothing wrong with living in a little fishing village for the rest of your life,” he said about Robertsport, “but that’s not what I wanted.” He said he wanted to leave so he could give something back to the village rather than just being part of the system. Strongheart helped Appleton get a scholarship to study photography in New York City. He finished the program in a year, then got sent to China to run a competition.

“After that, I was like, ‘I don’t know anything,’” said Appleton, “so I applied for an internship advocating for mental health in Texas.” Appleton said he focused on advocating for mental health during his internship in Texas. “When people experience trauma over and over again without getting any psychological support,” he explained, “that trauma unconsciously gets passed onto the children. That happened to a lot of Liberians.”

During the year-long internship, Appleton said he got to work with mental health professionals and use his personal story to speak up for those who don’t have a voice.

“I’m a people person,” said Appleton, “but I had no idea I could pursue a career that would integrate that into my everyday life. I think what I’m really passionate about and what I’d love to do is to work with people who have issues, one-on-one.”

On his first day of college in San Diego, California, Appleton said he saw two guys dressed upon campus and wanted to know who they were. “Something inside me just said, ‘Go talk to them,’” said Appleton. He said he told the missionaries he wanted to learn more about them.

After converting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and getting an associate’s degree at Grossmont–Cuyamaca Community College in San Diego, Appleton said he prayed to find an affordable school with a social work program. “I found BYUH online. I had no idea it was part of the Church,” he said. Appleton applied and started school at BYUH in Winter of 2021.

Appleton said he wants to be a doctor of psychology. He does not want to have any roadblocks later in his life, and he said he hopes being a doctor will allow him to help people as much as possible. He plans to go home when the time is right, he said. “I want to live in America as long as I can to get as much knowledge so once I go back, I will have connections. I can help in a very meaningful way.”

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