Samuel Quarcoo’s crusade started by happenstance in 1999, when a third-grade teacher asked him to visit her class and give a presentation about Ghana, his African homeland.
Quarcoo, who lives in Rockville, Md., was then a math teacher at Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Montgomery County. He showed the kids some photos of his old neighborhood school in Ghana and explained that the students often did not have basic supplies such as pencils and notebooks.
A few days after his visit, the teacher informed him that her students wanted to donate money to buy school supplies for a few classrooms in Ghana, where the poverty rate was then about 39 percent, he said.
“I picked up the supplies for them and shipped them to the school in my old neighborhood,” said Quarcoo, now 71. “But I knew that couldn’t be the end of it.”
“When I grew up there, life was tough — I didn’t come from a wealthy family,” he said. “But I always had a place to rest my head, food to eat and clothes on my back. Many of the kids I’d sent the supplies to had nothing at all.”
Quarcoo decided to continue sending supplies to the Emmaus Methodist School and two additional schools in the capital city of Accra. For years, he quietly bought backpacks, paper and crayons on his own and shipped them to school administrators, he said.
Then something happened that raised his cause to a new level: His friends and neighbors found out.
To help supplement his teaching salary, Quarcoo was working part-time as a waiter at Woodmont Country Club, an exclusive golf and tennis club, where initial membership costs $80,000.
When some of the members learned about his efforts to help students in Ghana, they asked if they could chip in, said Quarcoo, who has worked at the country club since 1975. He also is a part-time substitute teacher in Montgomery County.
“I have never asked for donations, but people are generous and wanted to help,” he said. “A member would say, ‘Hey, Sam, next time you go to Ghana, let me know. I will try to help you.’ By word of mouth, it took off from there.”
Quarcoo’s humble nature and desire to help is contagious at the country club, said Adrienne Maman, a donor who met him about 35 years ago when he waited on her family’s table.
“His heart is right in front of you — you can see his soul when you meet him,” said Maman, 67, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md.
“Sam is a genuine person who just took it upon himself to help these schools,” she added. “Single-handedly, he worked on his own for many years until people slowly began to find out. He has never wanted anything for himself — everything he does is for the children of Ghana.”
Even though Quarcoo has been furloughed from waiting tables since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, club members still donated $19,000 to his efforts this year, he said. The funds were used to buy supplies for nearly 2,000 students.
“The generosity is incredible — the club has been like a second home to me,” Quarcoo said. “The members all have such big hearts. The difference they’ve made for the schoolchildren in Ghana is inspiring.”
Quarcoo’s own story began in a compound of small family homes outside of Accra, where he said he was nurtured by relationships with his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.
“My father sold produce at a market and we didn’t have a lot of money,” he said. “But you can never complain about what you don’t have. I always felt loved and I grew up with the support of my uncles and aunties. It was a happy time.”
Quarcoo walked barefoot to school because his parents couldn’t afford shoes for him and his five siblings, he said. But nobody else in his community could afford them, either.
“Everyone went to school in their bare feet,” he said. “That’s just how it was. But we did have uniforms, because you weren’t allowed to go to school without one.”
Quarcoo flashed on that memory when he first started mailing school supplies to Ghana in 1999. He said he felt fortunate that he’d been able to come to the United States and earn a master’s degree in teaching from Trinity D.C. University after one of his aunts (already established in the U.S.) agreed to sponsor him.
“I was married with a child, but I came on my own at age 24 and sent for my family later,” he said. “I felt really lucky and privileged to have the chance to get a college education.”
After that third-grade class prompted him to send school supplies back home, he learned that children in his old neighborhood in Ghana were still denied the opportunity to learn if they didn’t have uniforms. So Quarcoo started paying for as many as he could, along with notebooks, backpacks and grooming kits.
Then, when the cost of shipping escalated, he decided that it made more sense to travel to Ghana and buy the supplies there.
He now makes the trip twice a year, most recently in November.
“I’m able now to buy laptops, desktop computers, uniforms and shoes for the kids in three schools,” he said. “And now, I’m also making sure that they have masks and hand sanitizer to get through the covid-19 pandemic.”
Although Quarcoo admits that he is easily embarrassed by praise, he has become a hero to students, teachers and school administrators in Ghana.
“Teaching and learning is now fun in our school because of Samuel Quarcoo,” said Christiana Ayele Otto, head teacher at Emmaus Methodist School.
“Through his donations, our school was able to establish a library with the numerous books we received,” she said. “His donations have included laptops, printers, televisions and a projector, and every learner is given some sneakers. They’re famously known by the children as ‘Mr. Quarcoo’s shoe.’ ”
Having a shoe named after him is an honor, said Quarcoo, but he has his eyes on the big picture.
“If I can help one child to become a doctor and that doctor then saves one life, that is where I will get my satisfaction,” he said.