By: Amber Van Schooneveld with Vera Mensah-Bediako   |   Posted: September 14, 2017

An innovative teenager shows how far a little encouragement can go.

Richard the Inventor

An innovative teenager shows how far a little encouragement can go.

Written by Amber Van Schooneveld with Vera Mensah-Bediako
Photography by Aveleen Schinkel
Richard sitting on stool trying to light a fire
It’s 3 a.m. Richard Amenu, 17, quietly gets up from the cramped room where his family of six is sleeping and makes his way outside to start a fire.

He’s run out of matches again so, squatting on the ground, he strikes one small rock against another, trying over and over to create a spark. The click, click, click of the rocks is the only sound in the dark of the night. The pile of sticks beneath his hands is doused in lighter fluid, so it will take only one spark to ignite.

As he strikes stone against stone, he considers how this action isn’t so different from how an automobile works — the same spark that starts his cooking fire is what fuels a car’s pistons to move up and down, which sets the wheels turning.

Thoughts of machines often swirl through Richard’s head as he goes through his morning routine. Once he has the fire crackling, his mom begins to make the porridge she’ll sell at the train station in Tema, Ghana, to passersby for breakfast. She’s already soaked and ground the millet. Now she cooks it in a large silver pot over the fire, stirring in ginger and ground chili. Curls of steam carry the scent up to the sky.

Once the porridge is ready, Richard helps his mom hoist the pot onto her head and watches her silhouette disappear over the horizon. It’s now 5 a.m., and Richard grabs a yellow jug to begin his own long walk. He’ll spend the next three hours gathering water to ensure his family has enough for cooking, washing and drinking.

But Richard’s thoughts are on later that day when he can finally go to the little corner workshop he’s set up at his home.

Richard is an inventor.

Richard smiling and wearing a Compassion student shirt

His first invention, which he built when he was 9, was a lawn mower — a hand-held contraption with rotating blades to help his dad cut the grass. Several years later, he built a radio using an oil jug.

“What are you doing with my oil?” Richard’s mom, Felicia, had snapped as she watched him pour the perfectly good oil out of the jug.

“You’ll see,” said Richard.

Richard had gone to a nearby garbage dump and gathered all the items he could find to help build the radio. But there were many items he still needed, so he made a list and brought it to his Compassion center director, Steven Boafo.

Boafo couldn’t believe Richard could build a radio on his own, with no training, but he wanted to encourage him, so he bought Richard the items he needed. Soon, Richard had built a fully functional radio, all on his own.

Next, Richard built a motor for a toy ride-on car he found in the dump. The car can transport a child of up to 55 pounds and even has a built-in MP3 player, so the little one can listen to music while cruising along. Richard continued to amaze everyone around him, building flashlights, solar-powered cellphone chargers and extension power strips from items he found in the dump.

The Compassion center workers knew they needed to foster his gift, so they arranged an apprenticeship for Richard with a local electrician who repairs broken appliances. Now Richard can earn extra money fixing nearly anything — broken radios, TVs and other electronic gadgets.

Richard created a toy dump truck with items he found in the garbage

Richard’s latest creation is this toy dump truck. The truck can drive backward and forward. He found a broken DVD player and considered how the mechanism could make a disc go in and out. He used this mechanism to make the truck tip up the bed to dump its load and come back down.

Richard finds an electrical component in the garbage

Richard frequents the dump, where he can find many useful items to tinker and experiment with for his next invention.

Richard works on his inventions in his workshop

Richard’s family currently lives in a partially built home owned by a relative. But it has been sold, and the family isn’t sure where they will go next. Until then, Richard uses the corner of one room as his workshop.

Richard built a radio using an old oil jug

Richard built this radio when he was 12 years old out of an oil jug, some items from the dump and a few parts his Compassion center director helped him buy.


“[Sponsored children] get that can-do spirit that says, ‘Yes, I can do it. I might be disadvantaged at the moment, but that should not keep my potential down.’ We help children see that, though they are poor, they are surrounded by so many opportunities.”

Richard hopes to go to university to study mechanical engineering and eventually design cars or planes. For now, Compassion is helping him attend a technical secondary school in auto mechanics.

But Richard isn’t the only one at his Compassion center with special talent. The Compassion center workers focus on helping all the young people in the program to focus on how God has made them unique.

“When you see the skills and talents [of Compassion children], you realize that all they need is a little push from someone who can encourage them,” says Padmore Baffour Agyapong, the director of Compassion Ghana. “They are so gifted. All they need is the right exposure.”

Your sponsorship gives children the encouragement to believe that God has given them valuable skills to offer their community. You can see it in their eyes — a spark that says they know they are valued, capable and have something to give back.

“[Sponsored children] get that can-do spirit that says, ‘Yes, I can do it. I might be disadvantaged at the moment, but that should not keep my potential down,’” says Agyapong. “We help children see that, though they are poor, they are surrounded by so many opportunities. If you get these inspirational words to them, they start to believe in themselves, that they are endowed with potential.”

That evening, back at his corner workshop — consisting of little more than a stool with trinkets and tools he’s gathered at the dump — Richard works on his next creation. Although he’s surrounded by poverty, what Richard sees is possibility.

Want to see Richard’s inventions at work?

Find out what makes children who live in poverty feel grateful >