Amazing Grace, Amazing Place

I woke up this morning to Amazing Grace. Now, if my husband or one of my kids was wailing in the shower at 6am I’m not sure how pleased I’d be. But when a vulnerable kid living in the house behind you does it (eventually with added harmonies from his housemates) you can’t help but smile and think that it isn’t the worst way to wake up. Sometimes I wonder if when they wake up they have to let the music out because it’s been trapped inside them all night. I’m pretty sure that’s it. Me, I’ll just have some coffee, thank you.

In the morning I like to sit outside and just listen. I don’t meditate, I can’t, I’ve tried and my mind moves too fast and so I end up frustrated. I do suppose, however, just sitting and listening to the birds and the kids and the cows and the neighbors in the morning is as close to meditation as I’ll ever get. And watching the sunrise is pretty cathartic also. Maybe I’m more chill than I thought. Maybe Rwanda just makes me that way. The work days here are long and intense, and often quite emotional. Offsetting that with a quiet, peaceful morning is a good thing.

We sat in on an English class. It rivaled classes in the states at elite private schools. All the kids were engaged and interested, and respectful of each other. Truly amazing and inspirational, watching these kids learn.

One highlight of the day was visiting the Solar Field. It is bigger than I could have ever imagined. Our visit happened to coincide with the visit of the Minister of Infrastructure, who was lovely. We walked and I have to say, Gigawatt’s timeline is impressive. It will be complete in 25 days, and the first panels will go live THIS Saturday, about 25% of the field. I’ll try to post photos but they will not do it justice. This was Anne’s dream, to have this solar field, to bring Israeli technology to Rwanda, to make the country better. They are planting a mango tree and dedicating the field to Anne in her memory. Amazingly, the view from the top is better than from the Village- talk about seeing far! I don’t think when this all started any of us could even dream of such a distance.

Best part was, Minister Silas asked is he could come see the Village!  So we gave him a tour, and he spoke with the kids in one of the houses, and turns out he came from a life like theirs. He connected well with the group and loved the Village. Best part is I asked for more Internet bandwith, and they said of course, they would be happy to help.  It’s good to have friends in strategic places!  All fun unexpected surprises during a busy day, but that’s how we roll.

The whole Village is abuzz about the Stand Up Rwanda event tomorrow. Everyone is helping out. The First Lady of Rwanda is coming and security is tight. The kids and staff are painting, practicing, cleaning and building. It’s like a crazy Aunt Hill will all the people running and doing. It’s going to be great, I’m sure.

Last Night I went to Joseph son of Jacob’s House for family time, a group of first year girls. (Yes, that is their house name!) They asked me personal questions, we talked about the event, and then we played a few games, including Simon Says. I don’t know any American families who get together every night for one hour to get to know each other better and discuss things and just be silly. Maybe we can take a lesson from the Village…

Writing speeches, sending emails, preparations, staff meetings, talking to the kids, eating rice. That’s about it for today. Wish us luck for a successful fundraiser and friend-raiser, the first ever in Rwanda!

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Lazy Days of Summer…In Rwanda

So let’s just get this out there as almost EVERYONE has asked me about the heat in Rwanda in summer: It is gorgeous here, about 83F by day but it’s the dry season so low humidity, and right now I’m outside with Danielle in long pants and I think I may need to get a sweatshirt. If you are thinking the summer isn’t a good time to visit, think again. I bet it is better weather than your hometown right now!

Glad that’s out of the way.

I’m here with Danielle Burenstein(our Executive Director) and fellow board members Liz Stern and Steve Moss (although Steve is saying in Kigali to work). We are here with a great family trip group, and will be attending the first annual Stand Up Rwanda, with the Rwandan first Lady as our Anne Heyman Spirit Awardee. It’s quite an ordeal and like most events, there are loads of details to be attended to and still a Village to run, so JC Nkulikiymfura (Yeah, I spelled it! And I can SAY it too!) our Village Director is running around like crazy trying to make sure everything is perfect. JC is the “mayor”. He knows everyone. We can’t get anywhere since he is a total rock star no matter where he goes. I know the event will be amazing because he has put in 110%. Really looking forward to it!

The day was mostly about work, so I won’t bore you all with those details. I’ll just tell you the best part of the day, for me. We have a great group here on a visiting trip, and we had a debriefing this evening about their day, which involved an elaborate tour of the village and a trip to the local town, Rubona. One couple, who are physicians, visited the local clinic accompanied by one of our kids, who had to translate from the nurses in French. They were so moved by the Village, our kids, the local clinic, they were both moved to tears. It was incredibly touching, and we talked afterwards about Anne’s good work, and all the solid ground laid here with respect to programs and healthcare, both physical and mental, and we all welled up again. This couple had never met Anne, but they were so moved by not only the Village but by the success; and commitment of the staff, the board and the kids to continue on with all they had learned, all they had been given. Honestly one of the most moving nights here.

I’m still completely impressed by the Rwandan people. We make friends here instantly. Today we were checking out of the Serena Hotel, and the bellman asked us where we were headed. We told him ASYV. He said, “you work with Anne Heyman?!” and we said yes. “Wow,” he said, “the world lost an amazing woman, that is true.” And I couldn’t agree more.

I cannot deny the pressure. I often wish I had her skills, her way, her knowledge. But I don’t and never will. Disappointing I suppose… but I like to hope someday I will at least make positive changes both here and in other places, like she did. I know she is looking down and hoping I do as well. And the rest of us, too.

We learned today that our kids and alumni did a fundraiser this past weekend. They all gave. They raised $14,000. Our alumni donated, our kids, our staff, and friends of the Village. They are amazing, and make us all so proud. I am unbearably blessed to be part of this Village.


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Rwanda Graduation Photos

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You don’t have to go, but you can’t stay here

So I’ve spent a lot of time talking about ASYV, and not much about what we have been doing. We’ve had some fun adventures. And some not so fun, like the anthill Heidi stepped on. At least I can now say I know EXACTLY what the expression “ants in your pants” looks like. At least on Heidi. We have dubbed that moment, the Antscapade.

Heidi and Seth have been great, we have laughed a lot, and thanks to Seth I’m totally up on what movies and musicals I need to see. We even scheduled spring break (he’s my travel agent!). Heidi will be coming back with me I have no doubt. Possibly as a missionary, but maybe she should talk to her husband first :-)

Yesterday we went to Akagera Park and saw some amazing animals. The guide told us we were lucky to see so many, especially the giraffes, which are my personal favorite of all time. The warthogs were pretty cool too, little Pumba’s running around. Lots of time in a car. LOTS. Today is our last day, and we ended up going to two churches where genocide victims were lured and then slaughtered. I know, you’re thinking why would anyone want to go there? But I have to say, I’m glad we did. For many reasons. But mostly because it is good to see the respect they now pay to their dead, and the shrines they have created to help them remember. I’ve had this horrible nagging feeling for days, like what are we all doing? People are being killed in Syria every day, and we do nothing. Darfur, nothing. The Congo, nothing. Its wonderful to help and give aid, but what about solving the problem? Is is as simple as just taking out the bad guys? I talked to Will Recant from the JDC about it the other night, and he was saying we need to act, we need to do the right thing. And when I go to a church which held 25,000 people (a small church, mind you) who were murdered all at once, and i see their clothes and shoes and skulls, it pushes me to act. I can’t change the world, but I have a voice. Someone has to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves any longer. Everyone needs to see this. Then maybe things will change. If all of us stand up and speak we are a loud voice.

Our guide for the week is named Innocent, and he has been great. I will miss him. Innocent is a popular name around here. I suppose there is some irony in that somewhere. Innocent says Kigame is well liked, and people feel good about what he is doing for the country. He also said he saw us all on television the night of graduation :-). I hope Kigame’s successor holds the same path. These people deserve some success and stability, to say the least.

Hard to transition to some of our lighter moments. So maybe instead I’ll just upload some photos. We have a long wait until our flight and then a lot of flying time. I have a bunch of Rwandan Francs I’m not changing back to dollars. Because I love it here and I will be back soon. Many times. My heart is here, with these people and all they have gone through, and all they have become. Its just easy for me to be here, i don’t know why. I wish I could stay longer, although I miss my family. I will come back and listen, and learn, and spend money and do all I can to make it better. Golda Meir said, “one cannot and must not erase the past, just because it doesn’t fit the present”. So, I’ll keep coming back to help make the present the best it can be for Rwanda.

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Mazel Tov and Tikkum Olam

I don’t know what to even say.

Graduation was today. It was beyond my expectations to say the least.  There are 118 young adults (can’t call them kids anymore) who are going out into Rwanda to make it a better place.

We bagan the day with a memorial service for Sifa, a founder of ASYV who dies tragically two months ago.  She had dreamed of this day for the kids… she was an angel today, watching over them, helping all to run smoothly. Of that I have no doubt.

The graduation was awesome.  The folks at ASYV did an absolutely wonderful job planning and executing a stellar ceremony.  And considering the extremely difficult logistics involved in hosting a president, including tons of military, guest lists, confiscated cell phones and scans and metal detectors, it was managed with skill and and great calm.  I was freaking out, but I hid it well.

The ceremony was held in enormous tents set up on the football field.  The kids were in green gowns, donated by the 10 year old daughter of one of our board members, who raised all the money to pay for them.  The kids looked amazing.  Smiles everywhere.  Family, friends, dignitaries, board members… people everywhere, about 1000.  You could feel the pride.

Anne asked me to sit in the VIP row as the representative board member to meet President Kigame.  Yup, freaking out.  I sat next to the Minister of Business, and a student who was chosen from ASYV.  And I looked at this young boy, and he was familiar… and don’t you know it was my Henry from last year, 4 inches taller and with a thin mustache.  He could not believe all the details I remembered about him, like his twin brothers name and that he wanted to be a Minister in government… I told him he made quite an impression on me.  So it was extra special, and he told me we were both really lucky to get to meet the President… he was right.

I suppose I should mention my Rwandan dress.  Super comfortable.  Yup, that’s rally all I’m going to say about that.  But I’m TOTALLY having an African themed party and wearing it.  Just sayin’.

Everyone spoke beautifully, Anne was moving and wonderful as usual, and even managed her tears well.  Performances were filled with smiles and talent.  I wish you all were there with me because no matter what I write it won’t do it justice.

I’m drained.  The kids are as well, you can tell.  They danced and partied all afternoon.

They see far.  They will go far.

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Beyond Fabulous; and Yeah, I Ate Goat

I cannot even describe how amazing this evening was. Kiki’s house was beyond gorgeous, and his family is amazing. He most fabulous people were there, not because they were wealthy or famous, but because of what they do, and for whom they serve. Kiki’s sister, Rosetta (who I ex lucky enough to sit next to this evening) gave a speech, and the thanked is all for giving Rwanda what Rwanda needs: Love. And it’s true. All of us there this evening have something to give from our hearts, no matter how deep our pockets. Everyone always does.

We are now on route to ASYV, and tomorrow is going to be amazing. Security have been scouring the village for two days due to the presidents visit. Hard to keep from the kids whats been going on, needless to say, they are excited.

I am continually blown away by the quality of people involved with ASYV. A quick role call to give credit to who is attending: Mike, Jeri, Liz, Tina, Steve, Kiki, Brian, Bruston, Will, Rich… Of course Anne…And all of their family and friends. Jeff Schwartzman told me to take a moment and think about the impact I’ve had on these kids lives while I’m here. So I am. But it’s like a big puzzle… Have you ever done a puzzle and a few pieces are missing? It’s so great to be done, and sure, it’s finished, but it’s disappointing because it’s not complete. That’s how I think of ASYV. all of us have been essential to how it now looks, and to creating a successful model. From volunteers to board members to staff and donors… No one is more important than the other. All of us made this puzzle complete. At the moment no pieces are missing. And it feels really good to know so many people care. I’m sure as we move forward a few pieces will need to be found and placed. After all this s time, against all odds, I know we will find the pieces. And I know I’ll be one who keeps on looking. The kids are worth it. This country is worth it.

So on a lighter note, yes, I tried goat. Had to with Heidi here and all. And so did Seth, god love him. And almost everyone else. Goats have cloven hooves, right? So they,like, go in the pork category, right? That works for me. It was really good, I must admit. Hard to get past the goat part, though. Can take that off the bucket list, anyway. Oh wait, that wasn’t on my bucket list. Well, I can put it on there and cross it off and call it a day.

Goodnight, y’all. Big day tomorrow. Military are here guarding the place. Totally crazy.

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