From early December until mid January, I was in Rwanda as a volunteer for a summer training program run by Impact Hope and ADRA Rwanda. This new program was started to teach and certify Impact Hope students in vocational skills that they can use to get a job or create their own business in Rwanda as refugees. In June of 2017, I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in International Communications and it was then that Mindy Thygeson from Impact Hope told me about this summer training program and invited me to volunteer. I was so excited! It was not my first time in Rwanda. I had visited for two weeks in the summer of 2016 with a group of student leaders from Walla Walla University to interview the students we would be sponsoring. I had already fallen in love with the country, the students, and the idea of sponsorship through education to transform lives.
This was the first year the summer training program was implemented by Impact Hope. Amazingly, it was all because one Impact Hope student asked Mindy if there was a way they could stay at the boarding academy over summer vacation rather than go back to the refugee camps. To understand this student’s request, you need to know that life in the camp is a stark contrast to life at school. In the refugee camps, each person lives on less than 24 cents a day from the UNHCR and often shares a dark room in a mud hut with multiple family members. They don’t have enough food and too much time.
Mindy and her husband Hans started Impact Hope back in 2015. They saw that there was a lack of education in the refugee camps which increased poverty over generations. Sponsorships of refugee students has transformed lives and the 55 Impact Hope’s students who have graduated high school so far prove it. They are making their families proud and they currently are looking at opportunities for jobs or university scholarships. Most of their parents are uneducated, but these students are beating the cycle of poverty.
Mindy and Hans recognize the transformative power of education, but they also want Impact Hope to make their students self-reliant. They started thinking about a way they could help teach these students a practical skill that could be financially rewarding for them and their families. So as the saying goes, you can give a man a fish to help his hunger today or you can teach him how to fish so he can support himself the rest of his life.
In an effort to keep the students out of the refugee camps while giving them a life skill, the summer training program was developed. The students were given their choice to study in vocations that are needed in Rwanda like electricity, plumbing, hairdressing/cosmetics, sewing/tailoring, and permaculture. The summer training program was based at Gitwe Adventist College, the first Adventist academy in Rwanda. Gitwe is in a rural part of the country, about three hours away from Kigali by car. The campus has lots of land that can be developed. More importantly, it has enough room and staff to accommodate all 350 of the current Impact Hope students and also the group of 16 Impact Hope volunteers.
The volunteers were given the responsibility of leading morning devotions, assisting the Rwandese teachers in each vocation, and giving worship and health talks at the evening meetings. Some volunteers stayed for two weeks, others for a month, and Mindy, Barbara and I stayed for the entire program. We got to experience what life is like in the Rwandan countryside. A typical morning was waking up for a run on the dirt roads around campus at 5:30am, coming across cows and villagers walking to work or to get water. After running, we would come back to take a sometimes cold shower, eat porridge, eggs and chapati bread for breakfast, along with African tea. We each have many funny stories to share about being some of Gitwe’s first visitors to stay for a longer period of time. In town, we were known as the local “umuzungus”, meaning “white people”. Every time any of us would walk into town, we would be greeted by this familiar phrase. We had the privilege of becoming close friends with the families of school administrators and staff that run the academy. They made us feel at home and loved, and we are so grateful for them. Connecting with the students was the best part of the whole trip and I am so proud of how much each of them learned in such a short amount of time. You can see the new confidence and sense of empowerment they now have with a new skill under their belt.
Each vocation accomplished their goals and there are many success stories. At the end of the program, each student received a certificate from their particular vocation and we had a closing ceremony to celebrate the success of the first summer training program. The speeches given by the guests of honor at the ceremony showed how impressed they were with the success of each vocation and their firm belief that the vocational training had made a sustainable difference in the lives of refugees in Rwanda.
From the perspective of a volunteer, I would say this experience is one that I will never forget. My heart is full in many ways. I am so grateful to have been able to be a part of implementing this program and seeing it’s success and I plan on being a part of the next summer training program in December 2018. If you were to ask me the most important lesson from this summer training program, I would say that the old cliché of “teach a man to fish” is really true. However, I do not believe it is implemented nearly enough by those who are in the business of helping others. Impact Hope is trying to change that. Their hope is to make the summer training program with ADRA Rwanda an annual event. This will help the refugees and also the Christian educational system in Rwanda. We believe that academic education partnered with vocational training gives our students the knowledge and skills to become self-reliant, to transform their communities and even change their world.
Arrangements are currently underway for the Second Annual Summer Training Program to be held at Gitwe Adventist College in December 2018-January 2019. Volunteers are needed to support the school in this valuable effort to provide vocational training to numerous students. Participants should be willing to give devotionals and evening worship talks, help in a specific vocation or a building project. There will also be an opportunity to visit the Akagera Game Park on safari and a refugee camp.
If you are interested in learning more or applying, please visit www.impact-hope.org and click “How You Can Help”, then click “Mission Trips”, or you can call (503) 673-3905.