“It changed my life forever!” said Karl Smith, President of the Rwanda School Project. That’s what I told anyone who would listen after I returned from my 2006 trip to Rwanda. Perhaps you recall seeing the film Hotel Rwanda and learning of the genocide that so profoundly affected the people there. Those 90 days, where almost a million Rwandans were murdered, left the spirit of the country in shambles. It was devastating to the Hutu and Tutsi people. Where would hope come from? How could they recover? Where was God and his everlasting grace?
Helping the people of Rwanda became my dream. I felt a personal passion to educate others to the needs of the Rwandan people and particularly to the building of a school which also could be used for church services. But first the people had to obtain land which was not an easy achievement and required a great deal of resources.
After learning of the need for a school, the members of my church, Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Santa Rosa California, responded and voted to send $75,000 to Rwanda for the purchase of land. That was the beginning of an exciting adventure. Letters from the children in Rwanda and Santa Rosa flew across the Pacific Ocean. The Vacation Bible School children raised $1,400 by collecting pennies, nickels and dimes. There was a showing of Hotel Rwanda. A Bethelehem to Broadway production raised money to send a keyboard.
When I started, I thought that building a school was about buying land, making bricks, and constructing a building. I soon learned, that it is not about money, but it is about changing lives. The lessons from Rwanda are profound. The most important lesson is that partnership means not just money donated — it’s also the willpower and energy to fight corruption, improve sanitation, distribute resources, raise expectations, and change habits. And all those things are happening in Rwanda today.”
The Rwanda School Project started by offering free classes teaching English. When the school “officially” opened in 2009, three teachers taught a class of 23 students filled with hopeful hearts and great expectations. Since then, a 10-room classroom building, a two-classroom science building, two dormitories, and a cafeteria/kitchen have been completed. We now teach six grades with seventeen teachers and a staff of 35.
Over $2 million dollars have been raised, one dollar at a time. Children have collected coins at school, Girl Scouts held fundraisers, churches have had yard sales, and friends and supporters have hosted Parties with a Purpose. The Fabulous Women of Petaluma, CA hosts a Festival of Trees each Christmas and donates a significant portion of the proceeds to our school. Thousands of individuals have heard our story and have believed in our goals, each contributing in their own way to help us move forward. We have received donated cars, and have written letters to many philanthropic organizations. We have received significant grants from We Raise Foundation (formerly Wheat Ridge), Rotary International, Cengage Publishing, and the Segal Family Foundation.
We have had many in-kind contributions with some volunteers spending up to a year at our school. In 2014, we received a Princeton Africa grant providing a volunteer to work at our school for a year. What does it mean to build a school? It means inspiring people, and it requires a big vision and a dream of changing Rwanda one student at a time.
Over the next five years, we need to find donors and grants raising about $1 million. But our goal is not focused on money, it is focused on people. In particular, it is focused on Patricia who wants to be a bank manager, Joshua who wants to be a doctor, Shukulu who wants to be a judge, and even on Bosco who wants to be a rap star! We have one graduate who is attending the University of Nebraska on a full four-year scholarship and one graduate who has started his own foundation to help Rwandan street kids. From the start, we focused on giving our students the tools they need to make good choices for themselves as they step forward to be the future leaders in Rwanda.
Our goal for the future is embodied in our vision statement: “We envision quality secondary education that is universally accessible and equitable, with the aim to equip Rwanda’s youth with the necessary skills and tools to develop into the next generation of skilled and compassionate leaders.”