We Are Family, I’ve Got My Mishpuchah With Me

Traveling home is never fun. Besides being a long journey back, the truth is, I hate to leave. There’s never enough time. I want to spend more time getting to know the kids and working with the staff. Maybe that’s not only because the kids are so great, but because in the village every day contains a clear success. It’s awesome watching it happen. It’s moving and emotional and validating. As hard as everyone works, the rewards are huge. I watch as lives change in front of my eyes, and I suppose I’m addicted to that success. Next time, I’m staying longer.

The end of this trip was quite heavy. Our visiting group went to a church which is a memorial site. During the genocide, people were lured to churches as places of safely, and then systematically exterminated. The churches have been preserved so the genocide and the people will not be forgotten. The clothing of the dead is draped on the pews. Bones and skulls are preserved. Coffins line catacomb-like rooms. I had been before, and it was still hard to take. But it seems like the right thing to do to pay my respects each time, somewhere, just like in Israel. Forgetting is not an option.

We then went to the genocide memorial in Kigali. I have been many times. I took that time to reflect on the week, and the past year. Sitting in the sun, in such a spiritual place, I was overcome with emotion. I’m not sure if it was just the events from the past week, or the immense pressure I feel to succeed every day (felt even more intensely in Rwanda) but I kind of lost it. A healing cry, filled with sadness for all that has been lost, especially Anne. I wanted to leave my tears in Israel, but I don’t think I did. Not sure I ever will leave the void of her loss behind me. But maybe that’s a good thing. I never cared about being a success before- it was always private and personal so it didn’t matter, only I was the judge. But this… Is different. There is no other option but success. I am thankful daily for the staff and kids who make it look easy. It’s not. But successful it is.

In the evening we went to family time. Every house has family time several times a week to discuss issues and concerns, successes. It’s a time for reflection and connection for the kids and their brothers or sisters. I went to the Steve Jobs house, a group of senior 6 boys who have grown very close, and who all seem to be completely exceptional. Blaise, our Stand Up singer, Joel, our entrepreneur winner, Bonfils our debate champ and dynamic village time speaker, to name a few. We talked and asked and answered questions. We asked them what had the most impact on them at the village. We got a mix of answers, but many of them said their family, their brothers and sisters. Always nods of agreement. So-and really, I thought this out as clearly as I could while they were speaking- when they were finished I told them that there is a word in Yiddish which means “family” or the family you choose. Mishpuchah. And they are my Mishpuchah and they are each others. I told them this is a real thing, after all, Jews have a word for it. And while I’m amused at the idea that I have introduced Yiddish to these guys, I realize that as poorly versed in Judaism as I am, I have delivered some kind of Jewish message or connection each time I’m with the kids. And it is intentional. For Anne. This connection was so important to her. I may not be the best Jewish scholar but I’ll continue to try my best. Points of connection to the Jewish world for these kids is critical for making friends and creating understanding between cultures. I wish I could spend more time here teaching those things. Maybe next year I’ll teach the the word, schlep?

Monday I met with our wonderful fellows, who have been in the village for 3 weeks and are already a critical part of village life. They are “cousins” for each house of new kids, and it is a hard transition time. But they are a fantastic group, and seem to have embraced their roles as leaders and family. I also had the opportunity to meet with JC. JC has become one of the most dynamic leaders in his role as director. He has become the face of the village. The kids adore him, and he has created a hard working and fun loving team in his staff. I could not ask for a more thoughtful and caring partner to more forward on this journey. He is a wonderful “papa” for this village. Everything, everyone, is in place. And as it should be.

Now, being home, I realize how much of my heart and soul is in that village. Not a day goes by that I do not think of them all, worry, and try to make things better. I have a lot of money to raise, a lot of time to commit. And, thankfully, a lot of love to give. You get what you give. I am lucky. I got Mishpuchah in Rwanda.


Oh I Love the Way You Hold Me, By My Side You’ll Always Be

In February, after Anne’s memorial, Danielle and I were on the plane home and Danielle looked at me an said, “Laurie, how are we ever going to convey to anyone what we just experienced?”  And I answered, “You can’t. You can try but you can’t. It’s just you and me who understand.”

Even now that is still true. And every day something happens and I can’t even think how I could ever even explain how meaningful or amazing it is… every day is an emotional overload.  And just when I think it can’t get any better it does.

We completed our management trainings which were quite productive, then headed off to tour the water system improvements.  We have had major water issues since the beginning of the village.  We need quite a bit of water for 500 people and all the staff and visitors. We were fortunate to have raised money at our Stand Up event in May for the project along with grants from a few generous donors.  So it’s quite and undertaking doing all the work in such a remote area.  We got to hike along the paths where the bore holes are, and see them actually drilling one.  Lots of kids were watching all the drilling, and more came out of nowhere when we showed up. It was a happening.  Big drilling trucks and workers, water spilling from the drill site, it was a lot of action for this little neighborhood of huts and banana trees.  Good news is we will have the water we need soon enough, and I know pretty much all there is to know about water systems.  (Honey I took lots of pictures!  Woo-hoo! Tell Bruce!)

After that, and then I say after I mean immediately after because schedules are tight around ASYV and boy, were we all a little beat up from the trek, we got to see the finals of the Wheaton College entrepreneur sessions they did with our senior 6 kids all day.  Wheaton’s President brings some students to Rwanda for about a week, and they spend the weekend here and do a whole day seminar for the kids.  It’s fantastic!  Three groups out of 15 were chosen to present to us and the judges. I am proud to say all the projects were really good, and the winners were very excited. I am looking forward to the day when their custom pen company produces ASYV merchandise to sell.  We shall see… I’m told the spokesperson and leader of the group Jo-el is a former street kid, who actually has to go home with a staff person on the holiday breaks, as he has no where else to go.

Immediately after that we all went to welcome the our new class, the Enrichment Year.  These kids are at all different levels of English, so I’m not sure how much was sinking in, but they seemed to pretty much get it.  Our group consisted of myself, Danielle our executive Director, Jeff a board member and also a Liquidnet employee who volunteers to do our trainings, Barrett ASYVs Communication Manager, Jen and Natasha who are Liquidnet employee volunteers, and Bill who also volunteered to do our training.  JC introduced us all and then let the kids ask us questions.  Fortunately the questions were pretty easy, but thoughtful. JC then asked me to speak to the kids, and I welcomed them and encourage them to take advantage of every opportunity they re given and to try new things… then we gave them all copies of the core values and a bracelet.  However, JC made them line up to meet us all.  So I hugged, welcomed and asked the name of 125 kids.  Some are shy, and hug gently, and have a hard time with eye contact. But some hold you like their lives depend on it…which I suppose they sort of do?  I was thanked and smiled at- if you force the eye contact and smile you get a smile back- and I have to say it was, yet again, an experience I am having a hard time articulating.  So many had hope and admiration in their eyes.  We are saving lives while teaching kids to dream and healing the soul with love.  We are there for them and that’s that.  I know they have no idea yet that this is true, and they all still have that shellshocked look. But we will be.

On a personal note, a hug, for me, is a true gift.  It’s love, comfort and compassion in a physical form. You can always tell how much someone cares for you when you hug them. Rwandans are some of the best huggers on the planet.  There is some kind of healing for me each time I’m here, embraced by these kids who only have a hug to give.  I love this place.

Take your Candle, and Go Light Your World

I awoke to cows mooing, kids singing… and a baby crying?  Turns out many people have moved in close to the village, and someone has a young family.  The village draws people closely, as we do a lot of hiring of day workers and purchase food from local farms.  On the drive up to the village you can see the changes, so many more new huts and even stores and such. Small ones but there none the less where nothing had been before.  The road was smooth this time, I imagine It had to be worked on since there is so much traffic going our way…last time it was so bad we got a flat.  The village continues to impact the world around it in a positive way, growing community.

Yesterday we did our yearly management training with the staff.  All I can say is that there is not a more engaged and enthusiastic group in the world.  Everyone is eager to share and learn.  Our staff are as wonderful and committed as our children to learning and growing.  Bonaventure, our school principal and Issa, our director of informal education, both told me separately they couldn’t wait, that they loved these days. I have no doubt their love of learning has rubbed off on the kids.

This year Issa prepared a video of what real footage of our recruitment effort.  Members of the staff, after receiving lists of 10 suggested vulnerable kids from the mayors of each of the provinces (total of 300 kids, there are 30 provinces) travel to the home sight of every single child in consideration.  The purpose is to check and make sure the child is really and truly vulnerable, and to ask questions about their situation and get to see what the living conditions are, as well as the guardians.  So we watched a video of our staff hiking and climbing into the Rwandan hillsides, sometimes walking for 3 hours in order to find a certain kids home, and then the kids themselves in their home environment, doing whatever it is they do. On child was digging a latrine. Others were entering small huts, talking to our staff about what they do… non smiled.  And I kind of lost my mind.  Not only because these were actual images pf some of the kids who had just arrived two weeks prior to the village, but because I was blown away by the dedication of our staff.  It is incredibly hard work to find and evaluate these kids. The entire process takes 10 months to complete. I had not been aware of the complete commitment involved to find these children. While I had known the realities of our children, and seen it with my own eyes, I had never visualized the challenges our staff faces while seeking out the kids.  There are so many easier ways we could populate our classes take kids close by, or don’t live in remote areas, or who are less vulnerable but we don’t do that. Our staff is completely committed to finding those kids who need us most. So, the board chair burst into tears in the management meeting. Excellent.  Well, sometimes you just can’t keep it inside anymore.

The good thing is, we now have a visual record of some of the children who have come here, and we will track their progress.  I look forward to sharing this with the world, so everyone can see the impact. They chose random children to film, so we shall see where they go. It will be an adventure for us all.

Friday night is Village Time in the village.  It’s a chance for the kids to perform and entertain one another.  Right now we only have our new kids (Enrichment year) and our oldest kids (Senior 6).  Last night it was the Enrichment years turn to entertain us.  All I can say is, how these kids have the incredible courage stand in an amphitheater and present anything to so many people… I don’t know where the strength some from. I know when I come next year I will be seeing some these kids up there again, doing it even better.  One young man, Bonfils, who is Senior 6, told his younger new brothers and sisters, “ASYV is the opportunity to choose. Live according to the choices you make and be accountable.”  He was not coached, he did not have notes.  He can give this advice because he lives it every single day.

Last night at dinner, I got to chat with Henry.  He has graduated. He has applied to McGill University and is hoping to attend in the fall.  His twin brother, Eric, will be staying here and applying to University in Rwanda, as someone needs to stay and care for their caregiver, their grandmother. I told Henry about this blog, and that I would give him the link so he could see what my impressions of him have been of he and ASYV.  So Henry, if you are reading this, know how incredibly proud I am of you and your beautiful brothers and sisters. Your hard work, compassion and positive spirit will take you wherever you want to go. I believe in you, and I know everyone reading this believes is you too. You have all our wishes for a fantastic future.  Thank you for changing my life, as ASYV has changed yours.  You have paid it forward already. :-)

Well, it’s beautiful  new day and I have to get a (cold) shower and start the day. Wishing everyone a mwaramutse (good morning) and murakoze cyane (thank you) for all your love and support.

Count on Me Like 1,2,3

Well, they did it.  They went and graduated, the Indatwa class.  These kids are the kids I remember most from my first visit 31/2 years ago. My kids are all grown up.  All who I spoke to are pretty clear with their plans. I am so proud of them. And they still have dreams even if right now they will just be working and waiting to hear the national exam scores. So many good things to look forward to for them.

The graduation was lovely. I got to sit next to the Minister of Education at the ceremony, who is a really remarkable guy.  He is so interested in our kids themselves, not just the program.  He really enjoyed himself, as did the Minister of gender and Family Promotion, who was in tears by the end.  She held my hand as we walked to have photos taken with the kids, and thanked me and everyone for all we do for the kids. The government is happy with the results.  The kids speak for themselves. The Education Ministers office wants to talk about how we can incorporate our methodology into the entire curriculum of Rwandan schools. I think the is the meeting I have set up for Monday. Yeah. No pressure.

I still feel every day like I’m living in someone else’s skin.  I look in the mirror and I don’t know who that person is anymore. It’s incredible to be pushed forward by Anne’s hard work. I often cannot believe ASYV has made such a positive change this significant this quickly. I suppose successful ideas take off that way. The fact that I have to represent is insane. I’ll do my best.

I got to meet with the Mama’s today, my favorite thing to do. I don’t know how they manage so many kids (16), but somehow they do.  I suppose I connect with them as a mom, and I respect the work they do so very much. They are all feeling confident and could tell us now about all the different ways the Village philosophy heals kids.  They are really a marvel. And all so kind.  One mama said of her position,  “ASYV is not a job, its a mission.”  And she said she loved her job. Doesn’t really get better than that.  One mama told us after the first break of this past year, when the kids returned to school one guardian said to her, “What did you do to him? Why is he acting so good and kind and busy?  What’s going on over there?”  They love them, keep them busy, treat them respectfully and build trust. The kids really respond to the philosophy, even if not at first. It’s kinda crazy.

We took photos with each class this morning (myself, Danielle, Seth Merrin and Jason Merrin) and hugged every single one. It was really sweet.  Everyone was so dressed up, so proud and good looking and so grown up under the green gowns. They posed and smiled like pros. Me, I was just having a bad hair day.  So they will look even MORE attractive. :-)

Graduations are usually so boring, lets face it. But not at ASYV. Lots of singing and dancing and really wonderful speaking.  It’s so personal. The emotion is real. These kids were not going to have a future, but now they believe in themselves, and know to take advantage of the opportunities life gives them. And they are appreciative. I think the US should open some youth villages maybe…

So it’s late and I must get some sleep. Still here 3 more days and lots to do.  I’m thankful for this village and these kids, and the staff who make the magic happen. I feel confident knowing what good hands the kids are in each day. They always have a place here, and we will always be with them. They can count on it.

I Can See Clearly Now…Gonna Be a Bright, Bright, Sunshiny Day

So it has been raining here for a week. And today there is to be a huge storm, with snow in Jerusalem. But on Monday, the sun was shining, the day of Anne’s overlook Dedication. A spot of sunshine surrounded by rain. Figures.

John and I began the day by boarding a bus with about 50 other guests. We drove north and stopped for a lovely breakfast at a rest stop filled with trees donated by the Jewish National Fund. I probably looked at many tree donations from people I know. I took a photo in case you want to see “your” tree. Anyway, It was lovely.

We then went to Yemin Orde. It is a wonderful place just like ASYV. We got to hear from Chiam Peri, and he told us that Yemin Orde has a lot to learn from Anne and ASYV. That we do some things differently, and very well. He said ASYV inspires them. To me, that is success. And totally awesome.

I kept picturing Anne at Yemin Orde, wandering around with her critical eye, asking questions, and thinking of ways to do things better. Yemin Orde teaches their philosophy to other villages, and they are experienced enough to know that each village has to make it’s changes to fit the culture. They understand that one size does not fit all. I feel this is so forward thinking. They are proud of the improvements other villages make, and are so gracious and encouraging. Chiam is truly amazing. His successor is as well (whose name I’m totally blanking on but I’ll get it eventually) as he said, “when I visited ASYV, that’s when I felt the most Jewish.” I totally relate to that. Go figure.

We had a tour and it’s a great place. Our guide, an Ethiopian Jew who grew up in a youth village, explained to us how important it is to have an identity. How can you be a success if you don’t know who you are and what you stand for? And, most importantly, that who you are is worthy of good things, and happiness, and success. I kept thinking about how often I have felt I don’t deserve things… And I think that has to do with finding out who you are. Guess I’m still working on it. I can only imagine the struggle vulnerable youth would have with that concept.

We then headed north. WAY north. If we had tripped we would have fallen in Lebanon (credit, John). We ended up at Goren Park, a lovely preserved national park, where we went to see the overlook dedicated to Anne’s humanitarian efforts and spirit. JNF (Jewish National Fund) sponsored the ceremony and the dedication, and we learned that usually a family requests to have someone honored, but in this case JNF came to the family and insisted she be remembered this way. Pretty amazing.

The view is outstanding. At first I was surprised it was so far north and out of the way. But now I think it’s just right. Anne’s overlook, way up north, I imagine Anne looking south and watching over Israel, keeping her safe. Corny, but that’s how I’m thinking of it.

There was a lovely ceremony and a boulder with a plaque was unveiled. Very moving. The group spontaneously burst into song. Hard to capture that feeling. We were encouraged to take a stone home so we would always have a piece of the monument to Anne with us, to remember. I admit, I took a handful. And a big one for the Village. Schlepping rocks to Rwanda. Couldn’t have pictured that if I tried.

There was a little reception and kind words were said, memories, wishes for paying it forward, our responsibility, and hopes for a better future, thanks to all Anne contributed to peace and reconciliation in the world. And then the sing along, in between speeches, guitar, kibbutz-like. All good.

The group had dinner, talked, laughter throughout. It was a lovely end to a meaningful day. Meaning Full, really. I feel fortunate to have been included in this celebration… And doubly inspired as I travel to Rwanda tonight. I’ll bring my big rock, and all my heart, my sunshine, for the kids. For Anne.

I’ll leave the tears…rain…in Israel.







It’s All I’m Dreaming of, Baby, Peace and Love

Being back in Israel, for me, is just slightly amazing. I think about how I denied myself the pleasure of this country for the first 40 years of my life.  I’m not loving the reason I’m here, and yet I love that I’m here in the spirit of Anne to celebrate her life.  I’d always hoped to be here with her, and see this country through her eyes.  I mourn the loss of all she could have taught me about Israel, but I am so very thankful for what I was able to learn from her throughout our friendship.

Although I can’t be here with Anne, I do get the next best thing: spending time with her Israeli family and friends. As an added bonus, ASYV’s board treasurer and my dear friend John Hoover is here to experience this all with me.  John and I are a good team, as we both seem to have amazing jet lag stamina.

I’m limited with my time this morning, so I’ll get right to it.  The memorial for Anne at the Shimon Peres Center of Peace was beautiful. As Anne would have wanted, the entire service was in hebrew. (We had real time translators.)  There was music, and art, and some beautiful speeches about Anne. Cham Peri of Yemin Orde, fellow board member and organizer Gideon Hersher, Seth and Yoni who spoke so candidly, and our former ASYV student Emmanuel, just to name a few. I know there must be video somewhere, and I promise to post a link as soon as it is published.  Honestly I don’t think I can put words to the emotion, and I know I won’t do it justice.  I feel incredibly fortunate to have been included in such an intimate and meaningful remembrance. And I know having this event in Israel is just where it should be- the lovely Israeli’s who came needed to say goodbye and celebrate too.

Today we get to travel with a group to Yemin Orde, where this little idea for a youth village in Rwnda took root, then on to Goren Park where a scenic overlook is being named for Anne in honor of her humanitarian efforts in Israel.  I know it will be memorable as well.

On a completely different note, yesterday John and I had the pleasure of meeting Tamar Shak, ASYV’s pedagogical advisor (say pedagogical 3 times fast; I can’t even say it once). She talked of how much has evolved and improved at the Liquidnet Family High School, and how the staff has stepped up and created an excellent learning environment  for the kids, as well as created a teamwork-style relationship with the kids and house moms. It’s all quite a shift from where things began.  I learned a lot about education, ASYV’s history, and plans for the future at the school. Tamar is so wonderfully dedicated to the kids and staff, and we have been so fortunate to be able to have her work with us.

Off to catch the bus for our journey today. I promise to keep you posted… unless that jet lag finally kicks in.







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!