The day Latter-day Saint Ben Taylor's life took an unexpected turn, he was doing what everyone does: checking his Facebook messages.
Clicking on the red message icon, Taylor discovered a message from Joel Willie, a man from Liberia who wasn't in Taylor's pool of Facebook friends. Immediately, red flags and alarm bells went off in Taylor's mind.
"It was just a random Facebook message," Taylor says. "I’ve gotten these Facebook messages before. . . I’ve had people who have tried to get me to send them money, and I’ve had people who have tried to scam me."
Willie's message said:
"Helo Sir wel my name is Joel from LIberia West Africa. Please I beg you in name of GOD I need some assistance from u. Buiness or financial assistance dat wil help empower me pls."
It was almost certainly a scam. But rather than blocking, ignoring, or sending a scathing reply to the message, Taylor tried something different. He offered Willie a business proposal.
The plan was simple. Willie would take pictures of his home in Liberia. If Taylor liked them, he would sell them and split the profits 50/50 with Willie.
"I just thought it would be a fun social experiment," Taylor says.
At this point, you may be thinking that you’ve heard this story before, since Taylor’s “social experiment” was featured on CBS News, Parade, and other news outlets. What many don’t know is the other motivation that led him to respond the way he did. When Taylor read that Willie was from Liberia, it reminded him of years earlier, when he was on his mission in Minnesota among many Liberian refugees escaping their war-torn and impoverished country in pursuit of a better life.
"I think that experience was what led me to give Joel a chance," Taylor shares. "Because I had kind of a soft place in my heart for those people and what they had been through and just other experiences in my life."
And it soon became apparent that his decision would turn into something much more than he anticipated.
A Lesson in Photography
Willie's first assignment was to send Taylor a picture of an African sunset. A week later, Taylor received a low-quality photo of the sun in front of palm trees taken on an archaic cell phone. The picture was so blurry and so overexposed it was difficult to tell what it was, but it was a start.
Joel Willie's first picture of an African sunset.
Intrigued by Willie's initiative, Taylor began documenting the story on his YouTube channel, Pleasant Green, and bought Willie a better camera.
"It was the cheapest camera I could find on Amazon," Taylor says. "I sent him that camera after he sent me the first couple of pictures because I thought, ‘Dude, your cell phone is just not going to cut it. The pictures are way too bad.’"
However, after seeing the next batch of pictures, Taylor knew that Willie needed some instruction when it came to photography. So for the entire summer, Taylor tutored Willie in photo composition, lighting, the rule of thirds—everything that would help Willie's pictures improve.
And they did. In fact, some photos were stunning, portraying the everyday life of the Liberians in Willie's neighborhood.
Joel Willie's picture of two women walking down the street of his neighborhood.
Joel Willie's picture of a Liberian woman pumping water.
Knowing Willie had held up his end of the deal, Taylor was surprised to find that what had initially been a joke had turned into something meaningful.
"When his pictures improved, I thought, ‘Well now I have to figure out a way to compensate him for his work or else I’m going to be the scammer I accused him of being,’" Taylor says.
By D Grace of God
Taylor compiled the best of Willie's photos into a booklet called By D Grace of God, a saying Willie used often during his correspondence with Taylor. Using his YouTube channel, Taylor advertised the booklet.
Ben Taylor holding the booklet By D Grace of God
At first, Taylor says he was hoping to make just enough to cover the printing cost and compensate Willie for his time, hoping a few family and friends would buy enough to do both. But that's not what happened.
Hundreds of people from all over the world bought the booklet, inspired by Willie's story. The initial profits were more than enough for the printing and were divided so that Willie would receive $500 for his efforts, the equivalent of about $77,500 in Liberia, according to mataf.net. It was more money that Willie would have expected to have at one time in his entire life. So then Taylor began to wonder, what would Willie do with all that money?
"I took a leap of faith," Taylor says. "But I wanted to see if he would do the right thing. . . . And I was pleasantly surprised about what happened next."
Expecting to never hear from Willie again, Ben was surprised when, about a week later, he received an email. With the money he had received, Willie had singlehandedly provided school supplies for five schools in his community, filling cars with backpacks, notebooks, pencils, everything that the hundreds of children attending local schools would need.
Joel Willie providing backpacks and other school supplies for children in his community.
But the story doesn't end there.
People from around the world who followed Taylor and Willie's story on YouTube were inspired at how Willie had used the money, and many donated money to continue to help people in Willie's community. A man in Australia even set up a tip jar at his restaurant to help raise money for school children in Liberia. Every few weeks, this man would send the money to Taylor, who would wire it to Willie.
Hope for the Future
As the donations continued, Taylor and Willie began working together to find ways to benefit Willie's community. With the money they received, they gave scholarships to orphans, microloans to new business owners, clothing to children in need, food to struggling families, and support to other schools in Liberia.
And a year after Willie sent Taylor that fateful Facebook message, Taylor traveled to Liberia to meet Willie in person. Passing by once 5-star hotels that were burned to ruins and neighborhoods where homes were little more than tins roofs supported by wood beams and cement, Ben says about the meeting, "It was eye-opening and rewarding and life-changing. Just seeing his living conditions, the poverty there was just breathtaking. It made me wonder if I wouldn’t have shown the same level of desperation Joel did if I were in his shoes."
Today, Joel Willie is the "man on the ground" and partner for the Pleasant Green charity, which has grown from the initial donations made by those interested in Taylor and Willie's story. Taylor and Willie have also launched another booklet By D Grace of God: A True Story, which helped raise $11,158.
Joel Willie (left) and Ben Taylor (right) meeting face-to-face for the first time.
About a year and a half later after that "random" Facebook message, Taylor's "social experiment" has gone much farther than he intended, but he's still pleasantly surprised by the results.
"It was just rewarding," Taylor says. "It was encouraging to see that my social experiment paid off. I was wrong about him [Joel]. He showed me that there was a different side of him."
All photos courtesy Ben Taylor