In memory of Anne Heyman and acknowledgement of her contributions providing a future for Rwanda's children. May the legacy of her work continue to help orphans and vulnerable youth around the world.
During the summer, I was fortunate enough to visit a community youth village in Rwanda on assignment for a client – Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Not only an inspirational experience, it was educational and underscores the value of ‘Seeing is Believing’ as we tackle our complex global social, economic and humanitarian issues.
It was also no coincidence that I was preparing for new beginnings in my own life. I realized that nothing compares to what orphaned and vulnerable children have to suffer. The reality is that there are still more than 151 million orphans and vulnerable youth worldwide who are in need of a loving family and prosperous future.
I invite you to read about my trip and learn more about Agahazo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV), a unique residential community and high school located in Rwanda, which is home to 500 vulnerable youth, many of whom were orphaned during and in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide.
Upon arrival at Agahazo-Shalom’s magnificent 144-acre campus with commanding views of a vast, lush green valley, one of the students who greeted me looked me straight in the eyes.
Piercing my heart and soul. I was struck by the confidence and vitality of these youth going about their activities around the village.
Founded and mostly funded by Anne Heyman and Seth Merrin in 2008, this remarkable community model has been developed based on ‘Restoring the Rhythm of Life,’ by providing a safe, structured environment in which they can heal and thrive.
Agahozo-Shalom means ‘a place to dry one’s tears in peace.’ It is indeed a place of peace and tranquility along with more than 100 species of birds.
The mission of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is to enable orphaned and vulnerable youth to realize their maximum potential by providing them with a safe and secure living environment, health care, education and necessary life skills.
Anne and her Founders built everything from scratch. They bought the land, they built the houses and dining room, imported vehicles and equipment, established a health clinic, installed a water pump and IT services, hired local staff, built a farm – all major accomplishments in less than five years. This is marked by the famous mango tree which is home to many visitors and meetings.
My visit coincided with the first ASYV Alumni event and celebration for the 103 of 118 students, just six months after graduating from Agahozo-Shalom, who journeyed from all parts of Rwanda to gather, present art, music and words of reflection in anticipation of their future and jobs.
Rwanda, home to the famous silverback gorillas, is an attractive destination for future economic and social investment in Africa. However, out of Rwanda’s total population of 11.5 million people, 25% are orphaned and vulnerable children. The lingering trauma of the 1994 genocide, which took nearly 1 million lives, still leaves many youth with little hope for a prosperous future.
Rwandan citizens struggle to achieve an adequate quality of life with 76% living on less than a dollar a day and 70% of university graduates are unemployed.
The village includes a state-of-the-art school, residential facilities, a health clinic, a farm, sports fields, an art and science center and Amphitheatre. The vast dining hall serves these kids and staff three meals a day from the kitchen. Interacting with these kids in the dining hall signifies community, camaraderie and celebration. They have discos on Friday nights and on Sunday mornings you can join them in Gospel singing and worship. Music is everywhere in the village and if not in dining hall, the students listen to radios. Where ever I went with Anne around the campus, the students flock to ‘Grandma’ full of thanks, hope and praise for a chance of a future. And ‘Village Time’ always brought special surprises and talents of the youth in performance art under the magical African sky in the Lily Safra Amphitheatre.
We are reminded of the power of art and music to help with trauma and healing.
At 5.30 am, amongst the shrilling birds, I wake to hear the kids playing the drums to start another day in the rhythm of life.
These kids, selected from districts around Rwanda, come from challenging circumstances, living on or making a living from the street, had no food or shelter, suffer abuse and conflict.
After a full day of school, meals, sports and electives the day concludes with reflection and family time in one of the communal houses of 16 students headed by nurturing family mums. I heard a moving story from one of the students and his personal circumstances.
‘I took drugs to forget about my problems, spent nights crying because I did not have money for clothes, did not love anyone and had no hope. When I came to ASYV, I thought it was a dream. I started to reconstruct myself and over time I gained respect, helped others, developed hope, and envisioned my future’
Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum
A trip to the museum tells the history of Rwanda leading up to the genocide and catalogues the 1994 massacre with personal testimonials, photographs and videos. There is also a small room dedicated to children, innocent victims of the genocide which are just heart wrenching.
I hung out with the kids one night at the art center to do some beading on a pen. I was not able to complete it as the electricity went out and left to retrieve my torch light. Towards the end of my trip, a select group of students wanted to see me before I left, they presented me with a couple of gifts…the finished beaded pen and a bracelet.
Anne Hayman’s belief in and commitment to these youth is summed up in a remark she made at the Alumni event.
“We wanted to teach you how to be thinkers. You have already exceeded our expectations and I know that for all of you it is just going to continue to get better”
The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village represents a model that can be replicated to enable vulnerable youth around the world to become responsible citizens and have a prosperous future.
We invite your support of ASYV’s upcoming end of year campaign to ensure the provision of food, health, shelter and education programs for the 500 youth.
To support this terrific nonprofit, further information can be found at – www.asyv.org.
A video link of Reputation Dynamics journey with Anne Heyman to Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village can be found at - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3KP4SZk0s
Posted by Sam Taylor