Alusine “Ajay” Jalloh’s ice cream truck is a kid magnet when it pulls up on a hot summer day at the Garrett Park Swimming Pool. With no snack bar on-site, it’s the go-to place for a frozen pop, sundae, milkshake, smoothie or shaved ice.
“Ajay is not only a hero to the children who come to his truck to get ice cream, he’s also a compassionate individual,” says Jean Horan, a customer since 2004 who lives down the street from the pool. He lets it slide sometimes if kids are a dollar short, she says, and donates to the Garrett Park Ladybugs Swim Team. “He’s just like an extension of the neighborhood.”
For more than 20 years, Jalloh, 47, has been driving to pools, parks, schools, stadiums, special events and neighborhoods in Garrett Park, Kensington, Bethesda, Potomac, Chevy Chase and elsewhere, selling ice cream and forming friendships along the way.
In chatting with customers, he shared his vision of helping schoolchildren in his home country of Sierra Leone by collecting needed items. Notices also began circulating on neighborhood email lists.
And the local community responded.
People have donated enough backpacks, bikes, shoes, clothing, feminine hygiene products and other needed goods for two overseas shipments—one in 2018 and another in 2021. Each time Jalloh has filled about half of a 40-foot container, paying $5,000 out of his own pocket to cover the cost of shipping.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Jalloh says of the contributions that he and his wife, Fatmata, pick up from local families. They store the items in their garage (with overflow going to a storage unit) for eventual distribution in a small town in the Kono district of the West African country where both grew up. “I get tears in my eyes. It’s very emotional,” he says of handing out supplies to the children in person last year.
Jalloh fled war in Sierra Leone in 1995, making his way to the United States alone. “I had no choice but to move. Rebels attacked and my family was personally targeted,” says Jalloh, who was finishing high school and in the diamond business with his father at the time. Fatmata came to Maryland the following year, and the couple got together in 1997.
In trips to his home country in recent years (he spends the winters there working construction), Jalloh says he has been struck by the sight of children walking miles to school. They didn’t have backpacks, and sometimes girls wouldn’t attend because they didn’t have feminine hygiene products. Jalloh says he felt compelled to do something.
“When I came to the United States, fortunately, I saw possibilities for kids. Some things are necessities that I think every child deserves,” says Jalloh, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen last year and has four children of his own.
Last year, Jalloh brought his three youngest sons (now ages 11, 13 and 23) with him to Sierra Leone to help hand out the donations they’d gathered.
Jalloh says he is grateful for the love and loyalty his customers have shown over the years with his business, and now with his charitable efforts. He is continuing to collect items, including new and used-but-functional laptops, for another shipment to the schoolchildren. He recently was buoyed by an influx of leftover items from a multifamily yard sale in Garrett Park.
Jalloh’s goal now is to start a nonprofit, perhaps raising enough money to build a school or facility for clean drinking water in his Sierra Leone hometown.
In early July, Jalloh had to put his business and charitable work on hold after a traffic accident left him injured and his ice cream truck was totaled. He has been recovering at home, hoping to be back on his regular routes soon. Neighbors say they are poised to help in the future, encouraged by the photos and videos that Jalloh shares on his phone of those who received their donations.
“It’s very impactful to see the end results—that it really does make a difference,” says Garrett Park’s Jennifer Perry, who has gotten to know Jalloh over the past 10 years, arranging for him to bring his truck to back-to school nights, spring fairs and other activities at Garrett Park Elementary School.
Perry says Jalloh’s story and sincerity motivated her family to donate school supplies, shoes, backpacks and clothing. “It’s just nice to feel like there’s this human connection where all the way over here, there’s something we can do, even if it’s small, to help there,” Perry says. “And for my kids to hear firsthand what other people in the world are experiencing has given a little perspective on what life is like for other people.”
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.