when education is not enough.

I come from a family built solidly and firmly on the bedrock of education. Becoming an educator is a source of deep pride; my father, for example, attended Overland High School in Aurora, Colorado (a member of the first graduating class) and after receiving his education license during his undergraduate studies, he returned to Overland to teach and has been there ever since.

For nearly 30 years, my father has been teaching a diverse, multi-cultural student body in geography, history, and social studies. Much of his life has been formed within the confines of a classroom, and honestly, I think it’s super badass. He’s inspired me to know the incredible gift that education holds.

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That matters because I grew up noticing and observing and then believing that education was the tool. For me, it was. I attended school systems with resources, qualified teachers, and supportive add-ons to enable the highest student potential to be met. This extended into college too, as if education was assumed to always be present and existent in my life.

So, remaining always enthusiastic to the process of education, I am faced with a deeply important and stark question: what happens when education is not enough?

Kigali, Rwanda

Inside a thick-aired upper room of a small alimentation in Kimironko, Kigali (towards the east side of town) I sat together with a Rwandan student of mine of whom I have known for six years. I hadn’t seen her since my last work trip to the country (in late 2015) and so she updated me, slowly and meaningfully, on each fragment of her life. I leaned in, listening, hanging on every word, wanting to know exactly what was happening.

With bread and fanta on the table, she chewed and sipped and told me everything.

Her mom is sick. Gravely ill. I try to imagine her lively, energetic mother withdrawn and in pain. It’s agonizing, honestly, to even imagine. This student does not have a father – her mother is her only parent. She confesses a fear of what happens if her mother dies. It will be okay, I tell her. But, really? Will it?

Her older sister, in pursuit of a job, left for Kenya without telling anyone in her family. Her family is devastated. They are waiting, hoping she will return.

Her younger sister passed the national exam last year and was selected to a reputable school two hours away from their community. They could not afford the school fees, so instead, she is attending a school that requires a 90-minute walk each day, one-way trip. The school’s education is sub-par and so, she fears that her sister will retain little, and perhaps be confined to the fields for farming for the rest of her life.

This student has the same concerns for herself; she graduated secondary school last year (a major accomplishment) but now, without an accessible (or even permeable) job market in her rural community, she feels stuck, isolated, and alone. Her fear, in addition to being single, is how she could possibly support her family without finding a job.

As she tells her story, I listen. As I listen, the same question repeats itself. This is a girl who did everything “right.” She studied hard, got good grades, and yet still, remains stuck.

How does she get out?

That’s the question, and it’s one that I cannot shake.

As she confesses all of things before me, her throat tightens as she does her best to not cry. Crying in public is quite taboo in Rwanda, and she knows this as much as anyone else. I give her a few minutes to hold it together, reminding her that I’m there for her, and with her. She is stressed and rightfully so; she worked for the last six years (even coming back to school after her father’s death so she could make a life for herself) and now this?

Now what?

How do we fill this gap?

Certainly, that’s the root of the model with my work with TWB: we seek to provide a tangible, realistic, and powerful application for an educational foundation. Yet, our program hasn’t yet reached this young woman – nor has it for all the women in Rwanda (and around the world) that enter the sphere of education but fall short when it comes to applying it. Herein lies privilege – yes, privilege, that uncomfortable elephant in the room of a word where we confront what others have (or do not have) and try to understand how we leverage our own existing mobility.

This student of mine is currently immobile – at least in an opportunistic sense.

For now, I have encouraged her to join other girls that I have supported to map out “next steps” especially as it relates to community-based solutions that would enable her to continue to take care of her family. Whether a small business (of tutoring in English for example) or seeking out educator jobs, I have instilled the hope that she can seek with diligence and confidence. She has something to offer the world and my god, she will offer it.

Yet, even in these small actions that work for a better future, we must take a larger step back and think about the education systems we promote and the larger systems of society they exist within. The strongest education, I believe, is one that is experiential and applicable. Learning can be done for learning’s sake, but it also must allow the learner to build capacity to leverage their own work ethic, knowledge, and potential for a better life.

What if we could re-work our systems and integrate the job market with what we are teaching? What if instead of teaching rote memorization skills, we built a curriculum that was alive, active and channeling participants directly into a trajectory? What if, instead of de-funding our entire system, we invested in it and compensated teachers for the value that they are worth?

I don’t have an answer for these questions, thought I genuinely, authentically wish that I did.

What are your thoughts?

How can we address the gap of education and income security?

How do we protect those, especially women, who are left with limited opportunities and yet incredible, limitless, budding possibility?

These are hard, awkward questions.

But until we ask them, we cannot discover and work through possible solutions. Let’s begin the conversation together. Let’s do this together. Let’s make education work for everyone. And I do mean, everyone.

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hope.

“Nothing can stop me.” – Yvette*

Kayonza is a sleepy town in Eastern Rwanda, though it maintains a solid supply of milk and bananas, so long as the harvest is good and the cows are healthy.

IMG_1582Last week, I zipped on a motorcycle across the small town, towards the bus station.I passed the internet café that I spent hours at for correspondence when I lived without electricity. The old coffee shop I frequented is now re-constructed into a larger hotel development. It seems the only thing that has remained the same is the dinky ATM I withdrew cash from (when it worked) and the large cow statue in the middle of the town’s roundabout. This part of the Eastern Province is nothing special to most, but for me, every time I pass through, there is something that buzzes inside of me.

Last Friday, I meandered through the Kayonza bus park to find a ride to my nearby Peace Corps community. This is my fourth, possibly fifth, visit to my village since I completed my service at the end of 2013. I’m fortunate, blessed, and simultaneously, recognize the unique opportunity I have been given.  With each time that I do return, my neighbors exclaim proudly, “wibuka ni wacu” (you remembered us). I nod with gratitude, humbly agreeing that returning means a hell of a lot to people, no matter the background, culture, or geographic location.

I hop on a bruised, dented bus that is, quite literally, falling apart. The motor, it appears, will die at any moment, and there are at least three extra people stuffed inside. The man in front of me is holding two chickens. The driver is desperately smoking a cigarette. There are numerous older women grasping their walking sticks as we roll along the hills of our town.

Standard situation.

I shift my backpack so it does not hit against the person next to me. As I re-organize, I hear a meek, but enthusiastic call for “Heather!” I turn around and behind me, waving joyfully, is a student that I taught English during both years of my service. We shake hands, laughing, and I tell her that I’m on my way back – but first have plans to stop and pick up Yvette. I’m staying the weekend at her house and I can hardly wait to see her again. This student smiles and shouts, “Yego! Karibu teacher!” (Yes, welcome, teacher).

I take a deep breath as I call for the driver to pull off at my stop. He looks at me quizzically. I smile, and assure him, that yes, this is where I want to be. I am meeting Yvette at our main junction before we continue to her home where I will be spending the weekend.

The first thing I notice is her hair. My sweet Yvette, who I began teaching when she was 16, now has a thick, long, black weave in a multitude of braids. This is an outward sign of mobility; paying to have your hair done  is not a frequent occurrence where we lived. I let the braids fall through my fingers as I shout loudly, and with so much happiness, “Yesu we! My dear you have become mature. You are looking so smart.”

I shouldn’t be surprised. Yvette is 20 now, and she’s completing her student teaching at a school adjacent to the start of our long, dirt village road. She’s teaching nursery school students while taking courses on educational psychology and teaching methods. I literally could not be prouder.

I am visiting my community again, but things are different than visits in the past. My students are beyond their coming-of-age; they have either dropped out of school or graduated. Most, I learn, have not finished their secondary education, however. For the few that have, the reality of finding a job feels ominous in a rural community sustained through subsistence farming. Harnessing an income feels overwhelming without existing purchasing power or economic capacity. Now, instead of questions about how to finish school, the girls are asking questions about budgeting, planning, and thinking through exactly what they want as young women – not as students. This “new life” as one of my girls calls it, “is not easy.”

Yvette and I ride in unison on separate motorcycles to her family home. I pass through the banana trees, knowing that once again, I am home. I soar on my moto, it seems, hearing mixed shouts of “Julia” (the newest Peace Corps Volunteer in our village), “umuzungu” (white person), and “Impano” (my Kinyarwanda name). The older kids tend to know who I am; the younger ones are now using umuzungu. So goes the passing of time. I notice that the bananas, beans, and cassava have all died. It’s a stark sight to see; a plethora of plots, yet all with an empty harvest. I would find out later that it didn’t rain in this village from April to December last year. Hunger, scarcity of resources, and food security are now even larger, more pressing issues.

IMG_1555Yvette’s mother holds her hands high with kwishimira (praise to God) for my arrival. She hugs me tight and she smells of sweat, firewood, and soil. Her day has alternated between the land, the kitchen, and the road. Yvette’s  grandmother does the same. I smile because I realize that after all these years, I don’t even know Yvette’s grandmother’s name. Rather, I call her mukekuru (grandmother). That’s it. We share a moment and there is a glimmer of joy and appreciation that strikes me; I’m so happy to be back. Mukekeru jokes that she is still alive for my current visit. We giggle because the woman is now 85 years old. I jokingly tell her that she has at least six or seven years left, and snarkily, she tells me that she’ll stay alive until I come back with children. We laugh some more. Touché, mukekuru, touché.

It must be said: life in Rwanda is not easy. Perhaps for some, but not everyone. Life in Kigali can mask the deep divisiveness of inequity that persist in this country. I am unsure if I became numb to the hardness of this life over the years in which I stayed insulated inside the community. Perhaps my time living back in the United States tainted the hardness of what poverty in Rwanda is like. Either way, what I saw in just the first few hours of my return was intense. It shocked me. It awoke me, once again, to the raw realities of deep, deep poverty. It was painful, but also necessary.

Yvette and I left her cemented house before dusk to go and search for a couple of beers for her family. My return, they said, warranted a celebration. As we roamed the village terrain, we stopped by her aunt’s house to say “hello.” As we did, she confronted Yvette with news of an intense infection growing on her foot. Her leg was swelling, she couldn’t walk, and I could hardly believe what I saw was real. It was night by then, and so Yvette used her phone light to examine the injury further. My stomach dropped; I knew immediately that this woman urgently needed to go and get medication and treatment. Otherwise, she would lose her leg.

We left, and instantly, I felt sick. As we entered a small center of shops and bars, I began to see old friends, old neighbors, and old church members. They greeted me, smiled, and continued to proclaim, “uri inkumi” (“you have become a woman”). Considering that just a couple of months ago I had my age checked while seeing an R-rated movie in Denver, this strikes me as wonderfully reassuring.Yvette briefed me on more news from the community.

She pointed to house after house, noting that various young girls that I used to teach have gotten pregnant and are now mothers. The climate has also been harsh and food has been inadequate. Theft has increased, and a feeling of distrust has grown. She reports that her mother, aunt, and uncle have all had thieves steal crops, food, and pots from their homes.

When we arrived back at her house, I stopped and gazed at the sky. My overwhelming feelings of melancholy seem to subside for a moment. The stars are ominous, beautiful, and vast. I said a quick prayer, asking that God would reveal Himself in this place. And that for myself, and for this family, we would remember that God is  still so present through all of this.

We ate dinner together in the dark. Yvette and I talked for three hours about what she has learnt at school and why she believes so passionately in education. As she spoke, with sauce dripping from her mouth in extraordinary excitement, I became suddenly, swiftly, and deeply moved at how much investing in one life can make a difference. I can’t always answer big questions of poverty, inaccessibility, or oppression, but I can be assured that there are bright spots everywhere. Yvette is one of them. She passionately remarks, “the two things I must always remember: a good future and self-confidence.”

Late into the night, she openly shared about other things too; things like politics, social movements, and her past. I was amazed at how well-informed she was – especially about the growing activism in the United States. She admitted that she cried when Donald Trump won the election. When I asked why, she said simply, “I can’t imagine a leader acting or talking like that. It made me sad for America.”

Enough said.

I woke up to a rooster crowing. Already, at 6:00am, Yvette’s mother was cooking tea. I stretched my legs and visited the latrine for a bathroom visit. I used to be an expert at using these things, but with passing time, my squatting abilities have faltered. Let’s just say it was a bit messy. As we say in Rwanda, bibaho (it happens).

As we waited for the sun to climb in the sky, we sipped tea and looked at photos of my niece, AnaLynah. Mukekuru is obsessed, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the lovely photographs. She was quick to remind me, again, that I must come back with children.

When we share a mid-morning snack of ubugali (cassava bread) and potatoes with sauce,Yvette’s mom prayed over the food. She commented sheepishly that she had “nothing to give me.” This broke every piece of my heart. I assure her – I don’t need or want anything. Just love, and only love. As we ate,Yvette asks, “Heather, when we tell you that you are a blessing to us, you keep telling us that we have been a blessing to you. How?”

I blinked slowly and scrambled to find the right, adequate words.

You’ve given me friendship. Community. A place to come back to. Purpose. All of you girls have motivated me to know what is important in life. If God gives me the opportunity to support others, I must take it. And, with all of you, you have demonstrated what it looks like to be welcoming and loving to anyone.”

We walked dusty trails in the western part of the sector, towards Liza’s* house. When I saw her, I gasped, amazed at how “grown” she has become. Liza detailed what it felt like to finish her schooling. She talked at length about representing her school at a national debate, and how she overcame her fear of pursuing her coursework in the sciences. She wants to go to university, but she doesn’t know how to proceed. The national government will announce scholarships in the coming months, and if she doesn’t receive one, she can’t continue. We prayed about this together, in her small, musty living room.

We also visited Yvette’s uncle, all with more food and more questions. Families often ask. “where is your husband?” and now, being in a very happy relationship with my girlfriend, I feel stuck in knowing what to answer. I can’t tell them the truth, and I also hate to lie. I feel in a different kind of a “closet” than I did before, and this is stressful. I get flustered and simply reply with a coyness, “God will give His answer.” This seems to be enough, at least for now.

The hard part of coming back, I realize, is that my new life doesn’t easily integrate with the old. I must grieve this and be patient with this, too.

One of the hardest part moments of my trip was seeing a baby with a disability going untreated. One of Yvette’s family members brought this baby to the house. I assumed the child was only two or three weeks from its birth. When I realized it’s actual age (9 months!) Yvette’s mom unwrapped the child from a small, blue blanket. As I tenderly held the small, floppy limbs in my hands, I fully grasped the limitations in each part of its body for this little one.

The child went to a hospital, but was referred to a specialty clinic. Because of transport fees, the family hasn’t yet gone. With urgency, I insisted that they must go soon. If the baby can access some physical therapy, the body can still develop some muscle strength. I excuse myself to the latrine, again, but not because I need to relieve myself.

I stand on the wooden logs, with tears in my eyes, unsure of what to do. Why God, why God, does this happen?

On the final day of my visit, I met the current Peace Corps Volunteer, Julia, who is simply, a gem. She’s connected strongly with Yvette, and her family too, and we share stories about teaching and what it’s like to live inside of this part of Rwanda. We walk to her home together, and I squeal in delight when I see my timeworn painted walls of turquoise. My old home looks largely the same, and with all the other stressors I experienced, this was comforting.

IMG_1586Yvette and I walked the five kilometers out of the village so I could soak the place up as much as possible. I was sad to go our separate ways, but we quickly made plans for her to visit the bakery in Kigali the following weekend. I thank her for all that she has given and shared with me. I thank her for being her. She shyly thanks me too, and she goes.

Then, like magic, I’m back on a bus, surrounded by colorful fabrics, women with babies, and bible-carrying men, to return to my current life. It feels like I took a step out of time and went somewhere else. I’m processing these experiences, people, and stories still, and it’s challenging.

It’s hard to reconcile our lives with one another sometimes. However, even in the difficulty, it’s a worthy process. I’m learning a lot from this visit, feeling affirmed in my work, and considering what it means to resist, persist, and keep going no matter what. I am thinking about those kinds of things, mostly, because more than anything, that’s what I want for my girls, my loved ones, myself, and my children one day: that is, to hold both the joyous and heart-breaking pieces of life together, knowing that life is neither one or the other. It is both. Always, both.

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My community, my village, my home always serves as a benchmark for a part of my life that allowed me to understand and know a bigger picture in this world. Life can be immensely difficult for all of us, as we each face unique challenges. I can’t move forward and forget these things. Instead, we are called to hone what we can and advocate for each other, wherever our gaps may be. We all have them. But, we can all help one another, too.

I don’t know what to do about what I saw: the paucity of food; the lack of education; the scarceness of jobs; the propensity of medical issues; there is just so much. Too much.

But, I am assured, knowing that I can continue to stand with my girls, with Yvette, believing that opportunity does provide the most valuable kind of a return on investment: HOPE.

*Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of these stories and the individuals involved. 

stand by me

Ben E. King authored (brilliantly) “Stand by Me” in 1960. It’s one of my favorite songs – ever. Always has been. At least since I started listening to music as a young girl. The lyrics are hauntingly stunning and poetic. So simple – and yet they say so much.

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

I stumbled across the Tracy Chapman cover this week and it’s been on replay for the last few days. I love her humble renditions; something about her voice brings me to tears frequently.

Always, it seems, I hold tightly to “Stand by Me” when big change and transition presents itself in life.

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Three years ago, I remember sitting underneath the expansive, starry, deep blue sky at Maisara’s home in our village. I still had 6 months left in my Peace Corps service, but we were talking about the pending change – and what would come after.

“We don’t always know what is ahead of us, Maisara,” I began, “but, you can be sure that no matter the distance between us, I will always stand by you. I will support you, love you, and encourage you – no matter where I go. I want to hold onto these times forever, but don’t worry, even better is going to come. Just you wait and see.”

She chuckled, almost in disbelief, “Yego sha! Turi kumwe.” (Yes my dear, we are together).

I didn’t have to say anything. I knew I would remain true to my word. In turn, I knew she – and her sister – would continue to impact my life in unimaginable ways. They have. They do. They will.

They, along with 4 other girls, are a part of a group of women that have already changed their country. They hail from deep village pockets; from places many Rwandans have never heard of. They went to a tired, resource-lacking public school. Be it sickness, death, poverty, divorce, or hunger, they struggle.

Still. That is only one side of their story. They are writing the next part. They write with their excellent marks; with their leadership positions; with their shifting attitudes; and with their dreams. Always, with their dreams.

We talk monthly, and though they don’t realize it, those conversations are often what propel me to keep going too, to keep my head up and remain open to all that life has for us.  They inspired me when we lived together so many years ago – and even now they have the ability to do so. It’s incredible. They’ve taught me so much about life. They are the great storytellers in my life.

Three of these girls will FINISH their secondary school this year.
Three of these girls will FINISH their secondary school next year.

When I left Rwanda, that was my dream. That our lives would remain connected; forging together with gusto; and helping pave the way for greater access to education. It’s happening – and we’re almost there. If you want to help the girls finish the sprint to the finish you can contribute to the fund here

I set out to raise $4,000 to make this happen about two years ago, and now, with only a couple terms to go, we’re only in need of $625! Let’s do this. Murakoze cyane. Thank you very much.

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6 girls, 6 degrees: 2020.

It started with Divine & Yazina; two young women that impacted my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2011-2013.

In finishing my service late 2013, I was determined to continue to be an advocate for girls’ education. Of the many issues of the world that can pull heartstrings, this was the one for me, and teaching in Ruramira revealed that over and over again. It was the girls who had educated me on life, cooking, new conceptions of woman-hood, family, and rural living in Rwanda. Their lives exuded both joy – even in the midst of hardship. Without them, I am confident my service as a teacher would have been greatly, greatly different. I know, without a doubt, God placed these group of women in my life for a reason – I see that more as the years go by. IMG_2716

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More than teaching, they simply demonstrated what it means to live simply and to do so with both great humility and strength.

Yazina has gone on to study physics & chemistry at a “school of excellence” in the northeastern corner of the country (upon visiting I was amazed at the plethora of labs with microscopes!) and Divine is studying history while pursuing her religious interest with peers at school. I’ve visited both, and I’ve been pleased to see that their school environments are significantly more positive than what is offered at our home, in the village.

As supporters came, so did the ability to grow this cause. Because of my own continued professional opportunities in Rwanda, I have had the unique chance to stay in touch with not only Divine and Yazina, but also Eugenie, Maisara, Zahara, and Donatha, Divine’s sister. 

Eugenie and her deep love for reading.

Eugenie and her deep love for reading.

Each girl is from Eastern Rwanda and each girl has visions for their future. With increased funds, I felt led to expand the offering to the girls listed above. Maisara is studying in a school tucked away out West (studying math & chemistry); Zahara is in training to be a nursery school teacher; and Donatha is new to the Secondary School scene – having started this year.

These girls became my friends 4 years ago; now they are like sisters. I’m happy to share this donation opportunity again. For those that have helped been a part of this dream – I, and the girls, are forever thankful and full of gratitude. They have shed tears in thinking of the generosity they have seen. They tell me, “this is the great blessing in their life.”

See the link below for further opportunities to contribute – the last $800 that I am fundraising for will cover the finishing expenses to get these girls all completed in secondary by 2020. Amazing. Praise God and that this may glorify His good work in this country – and in them.

Educate “The Girls”

10,000 steps, 10,000 promises

My feet are small (perhaps cute when they are well taken care of) but they are mighty. I used to kick around soccer balls with these size 5 pudgy things; I’ve trekked a mountain or two; and they have carried me to places I never thought I would go. More recently, they have been my tickets to intimacy with the Lord.

With a disinterest in motorcycle taxis and a preference for active sightseeing around Kigali, I began walking in order to get things done. A few weeks ago, God pushed me further: “blessed are the feet that bring good news!” (Romans 10:15) and so I intentionally prayed for people to greet, talk to, and occasionally pray with on these busy tarred and rocky roads.

Drawn often towards older women street cleaners, amazing, almost miraculous things have taken place. Not because of anything I am doing – but because He is in the thick of these moments and conversations. In praying with one woman, Marita, once, a passerby, Grace, joined. We held hands together and continued in prayer. People, wide-mouthed, walked by in disbelief. I smiled when we finished.

Why not? If we can pray in churches together, then surely we can pray on the streets together.

Once, when my sandal broken on the outskirts of a sleepy Eastern town, Nyagatare, God placed a woman shoemaker right next to me – tools and all. Last week, a Muslim man asked me about Jesus. Mind you, this was in Kinyarwanda. God gave me the words. I didn’t speak with force, superiority, or intimidation. I was honest. I told him that no, Jesus wasn’t just a prophet – He came to save the world. He was sent by God. This man, Yohani, didn’t walk away totally convinced. But her shook my hand, hugged me, and said I was different – I wasn’t just a well-read Christian; I spoke from the heart. It was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in quite some time.

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God’s revealed a lot to me as I have put one foot in front of another. With 10,000 steps, my daily goal, a lot of forward progress is required.

Our walks are not simply efforts in active ministry; it’s a way for me to hear His voice, too.

He’s reminded me of the root of abundant life: Him, not me.

He’s gently rebuked my controlling ways that always seem to surface back.

He has spoken and shown a deep love for grace and joy – for all.

He’s maintained promise after promise after promise.

He’s asked me to just wait. Wait and see.

To put on paper what He is worked in these daily 10,000 steps is nearly impossible, but I do love to try. This is why and where I find contentment in writing: it can show what He has done. Our stories of faith, revelations, and relationship with God become the life story.

And so, I try writing, perhaps not doing it justice, but it never did hurt to try. Here’s one of His most recent great works.

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On yet another walk, Jean Pierre, an old Hendrix friend of mine, and I trudged up the brown-green hill in Gatsibo District to visit the local teacher training school. Zahara now attends this location – only 1 of 4 teacher training schools in the Eastern Province – and will continue to be trained in nursery school teaching for the next 2 ½ years. I was Zahara’s English teacher way back when it seems (when she was only in Senior 1 & 2!) and so I couldn’t wait to see what this new school had held for her and the way it would mold her future, her methodology, and her very natural gift of teaching.

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I was stinky in sweat while the sun was seriously scavenging our skin, but I still smirked with restrained excitement as we entered the school metal gates. Even from the path below, her school looked stunning. For an hour, I met with administrators and toured the campus.

A new school, the bricks are molded together with white cement and the dormitories are full of beautifully built wooden bunks – the first of wooden beds that I have seen at a boarding school in Rwanda! An early childhood education student, Zahara is already observing nursery classrooms to ultimately educate Rwanda’s very young youth. Zahara is fed three full meals a day and is Vice-President of English while also serving as prefect for the girls’ dormitory.

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I saw her sitting in her Foundations of Education class and waved timidly. She blushed back and I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so we could chat. Finally. It’s been a year; but for someone your heart loves so preciously, that’s a very long time.

We sat in the main school office, tear-ridden and amazed we had gotten here. Literally. All of it – the student body, the school building, the environment, the programs – it made me incredibly grateful and joyful. I know a bit of where she has come from, and so this, yes this, is a promise of hope being fulfilled.

IMG_20150917_101358She’s doing it! She’s working towards her dream of teaching. I closed my eyes and I audibly praised Jesus. It wasn’t the education alone changing Zahara’s life – it was Him. She knows it too. As her eyes watered with genuine gratitude, I attempted to mutter a few words, like I had finally pieced together a long-awaited puzzle, “God brought out lives together for a reason…”

I started but choked up. Left speechless. Always left speechless.

But because we are in the world, nothing is so beautifully or perfectly wrapped or completed like this all the time. Our stories our laced with promise and struggle.

Her family called about an hour later, reeling off intense issues that were taking place at home while she was away at school. I watched helplessly as she quickly fell into the trappings of guilt, darkness, fear, and misery.

Traumatized, she was unreachable for 30 minutes. Crying, sobbing, and in a pit of pain, I prayed for her. You have to understand the depth of her family brokenness. Her past trauma is true and real. She, like all of us in some way, has been shattered.

I thought back to the previous week and deeply sympathized with her. I had visited her family, right in their home (back in our village), and I too, could sense a bit of this kind of penetrating, overwhelming wreckage.

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It was as if I had re-entered a room and though nothing had changed, everything had changed. All the problems. All. the. problems. Sickness, famine, dry fields, absent teachers, failed projects – God placed this place on my heart – so why did it feel so bad?

While on my visit, I excuse myself from the family table and go on one of these “10,000 step walks” to gain clarity and grounding. With the skirmishes and on-going issues of her family resurfacing, I began to ask questions out of hopelessness.

Is this school-sponsorship thing even worth it? Am I still being called to help facilitate this? Does this – will this – ever change? What might actually work here?

I had let hopelessness – damn you, hopelessness – trickle in.

The thick evils of our world would much prefer we stay in this place of distraught discontentment. If we do, we don’t remember the purpose of our lives and what we ultimately seek and strive for. Namely, there is nothing we can do in ourselves to end these challenges, disparities, needs, and pains. Strife will be with us as long as sin has a stake – and until otherwise notified – sin is a tragic part of our existence. And so, because of that, we don’t give up. We press on, asking God, what would you like me to do? How can I serve YOUR plan – even in these situations that I don’t think I can really handle? We surrender ourselves (feelings included) trusting that He will show a way.

I finished the weekend in more bountiful, joyful spirits (after all, my village is, and always will be, a sweet spot of home for me) but the power of hopelessness did not go unnoticed. That’s why Jesus and grace and love can be so difficult to comprehend; the further lost we become in our hopelessness, the harder it can be to come out of it.

I knew it would be something I would need to remember.

*

Zahara left for the dormitory to have the space to let her emotions free.

The school disciplinarian and dorm mama sat alongside her too, patiently scratching her back, waiting for her emotional return. It was here, on this auburn-wood stained bunk, that a newly resurgent wave of conviction, passion, and belief came upon me.

Where God opens doors, the evil forces of our world will try to desperately distract us so we close them and miss our path to grace.

I’ve closed enough doors in my life to know this.

I didn’t want to see Zahara trek down this same kind of road.

“You are meant for this Zah….believe me. We don’t know why opportunity or struggle or our situations are placed in our lives and then come and go…but you are here. Keep pushing forward. This is your future. You must believe in what is being laid before you.”

Blotchy redness slowly faded and we hugged. I think she believed me.

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I will keep praying, I told myself.

I was quiet for some of our bus-ride back to Kigali.

What was God doing? What was He revealing – to both me, and Zahara?

*

Morning comes too early.

My mind has determined to run, my body however, has not. I choose coffee and oatmeal knowing that I will be walking later anyway. Maybe I will do an extra 2,000 steps here or there for measure. I spill hot grounds on my Bible and oats fall between my shirts. Once a master of morning hours, I am now a mess. I dress and the walk begins. If only I knew what was ahead.

I would pray with Sifa, a woman searching for something. We chatted briefly, and I prayed that peace would transcend all areas of her life. Minutes later, I arrive at Canaberra, for another morning coffee with Nadine, a speaker and recruiter for Rwanda’s only all-women higher level institute, Akilah. With a mutual writing interest, we got connected and were discussing how she could elevate her work for communication and professional purposes. Our discussion shifted instinctively to the realm of faith.

Minutes later, as we sipped from our mugs, Nadine was telling me her own story. Raised within deep poverty in Rwanda, she used to walk 2 hours to school a day. There wasn’t always food. Her mother was sometimes sick. She knew God, however, and didn’t stop believing things could be different. Someone, along the way, believed in her too. The right person at the right time.

Then, her life changed forever. She enrolled in Akilah’s hospitality program and following completion of her degree, became a development and recruitment associate – on one occasion, working in their New York City office for 6 months.

“God’s hands were all over it. It’s only for His glory.”

She was emotional as she shared – almost in disbelief about what God had done. On a prompting from the Holy Spirit, I shared Zahara’s story with her. It had just happened days before and was still fresh in my mind. Then something amazing happened.

“I would love to talk with her…to reach out to her…whatever she needs…”

What….?

Just 24 hours earlier, I had prayed God would show an answer to Zahara’s needs of assurance and comfort in her freshly-sought faith. A mentor. A mentor who knows much more than I ever could. I exhaled with so much thankfulness and relief.

2 Peter 3: 8-9

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

He’s got a plan for Zahara. I’m just one small part. He is true to His people. He is faithful. That’s the God we live for, the God of creation. When we walk discerningly, it is amazing what we find. Whatever blisters may come, I will do my 10,000 steps faithfully too, and seeking and trusting in his unyielding sovereignty. It may be easy to forget, but that’s why God is a God of relationship. We walk with Him, sometimes taking wrong corners, but realizing He can (and will) get us back on track when we let Him. And more importantly, just because we follow Him doesn’t mean our walks are full of momentous, jump-on-the-couch-happy dances. Life is hard. Really, really, really hard. Zahara, her family, my village, and things in between reminded me of that this week. Prayer is a serious thing then, because it allows us to voice those concerns. God knows, but our voices bring the reality to life. Talk with Him. He’s listening.

It’s worth it. He is. You are. Life. Let’s try and hold firm to His promises. That’s my prayer for Zahara, for me, for all of us.

Enjoy your walk. With each step, we have a new promise. Promise.

*

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love will change everything.

Last week, I entered what has been deemed sacred by defenders of gym life, the locker room, gabbing abruptly on my phone. Dirty looks were cast my way but I allowed them to bounce off the ever-present mirrors around us.

I chuckled loudly and in the midst of tennis shoes, spandex, and work clothes, I realized these people are also perhaps heavy onlookers because not only am I shouting vigorously, but I am speaking Kinyarwanda. Another language, girl. Oh.

I gazed at one of those omnipresent mirrors and gave myself a funny look. How is it 2015 and you are standing half-dressed at one hell of a gym (10,000 square feet!) in South Denver, simultaneously laughing with Rwandans thousands of miles, hours, and lifetimes away? Technology, the world, and communications never cease to amaze me – even after all this time of adjusting to long-distance, cross-cultural relationships.

*

That afternoon – and in culmination of a few days of conversations – I spoke with all of “the girls” via Skype. Some of the contact is regular; Divine and I chat weekly, but because Maisara, Zahara, Yazina, and Eugenie don’t keep their phones charged while at school, the conversations occur a bit more sparingly.

Epic, are they, when we finally have our chats again.

Hence the hootin’ and hollerin’ in the locker room in good ole’ suburban America.

It doesn’t seem long ago – and yet it was – when I first met these young women who had only motivation, persistence, and ethic to fuel their commitment to learning. In a span of 4 years – because of their own opportunities and awareness of themselves – they have developed an underlying belief in what they are doing. They have seen it works.

Maisara was a shy, timid, and tired young lady when we first met. I’ll never forget that first home visit – her body was physically present, but her mind was far, far away. She pursed her lips in hesitation and fear as I got to know her. As she opened up though, she blossomed. She’s a natural leader, with intellect and charisma, doing everything with intention. I love that about her, and I have heard it in her voice, and seen it displayed in her actions. She scores goals, aces exams, and studies every free moment she has. No longer timid, she can brighten any room she enters.

Zahara has always been more gregarious, rambunctious, and let’s be real, crazy, but she’s oozing this quality of balance now. She is maturing and honing her strengths beautifully as she becomes soccer captain and head girl at her new (brand new  – just built last year!) school. She’d drive me nuts when I would teach her class lessons – she was so dang talkative – but as she’s grown up a bit, she understands better how to utilize her sociability. People can’t help but want to be around her.

Divine is more thrust into her life as a Catholic woman than ever. On campus, she tells me that she is a “prayer warrior” and leader for student religious events. She’s always been faithful, but now, I sense it’s seeping into everything; namely her education. Success, she says, is not the pinnacle. Trusting in the process is. Take that for a chunk of wisdom. Her education is fueled and funneled as a top priority along with her identities as a Christian and daughter. She is starting to fully grasp what it is to be well-rounded; understanding that her best qualities are available to her in anything she might do.

Yazina’s grades are improving – promising, considering the poor girl is loaded with Chemistry, Math & Physics courses. Bleh. When I was in Kigali last summer and I visited her school, she was intensely worried about her marks. Be patient, my dear, her grandmother would tell her over a broiled pot of bananas and greens. And indeed, it’s getting better for her. She wants to be a nurse or a doctor, so the only road ahead is the one full of calculators, tests, and laboratories. When I met her back in 2011, I noticed her observant mind right away. She’s still like that. Only with a little more sass.

I only began to facilitate education sponsorship for Eugenie last August, but I have known her now for over three years. She’s diligent, studious, kinder than most people I know, and also eaten alive by an incessant need for perfection. Stemmed from a forever begrudged father who is always groaning about raising 4 girls and never fathering a son, she has always wanted to prove something. It’s an innate human quality, and these young Rwandan women and ladies are no exception to the rule. In our conversations, she’s learning how to not be perfect. We’ve all been there right? It’s a necessary lesson, and one that serves a 20-year old girl quite well. Hell, we’re all still learning how to graciously do that, right?

*

I share all of this – their summaries and life updates – not to solely draw light on an important issue (education for women) but to address the reality that, like scripture tells us,

For wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:21

Supporting them is a commitment that I happily stand by. These long conversations, money transfers, readings of tuition statements…it pales to what the experience has been like for them but also for me. Frankly, by staying faithful to this commitment, God has remained faithful to all of us. As you can read above, they are thriving at their schools. More than that, they are thriving women. That’s the real victory. Humbly, fortunately, and by the grace of God, I can say the same for myself.

ephesiansIn this experience, God has shed light on how to serve.

What’s appropriate; what’s not. What my role is; what it’s not. When it works; when it doesn’t.

Some have called this charity. Some of labeled it ministry. Still others have commended the great and noble act of advocating for a person when they may not have the means to do so themselves.

I smile when I get comments like that. I appreciate that heartfelt sentiment. But let me be the first to say, God has impressed something important on me in this process.

This is not about me. I’ve prayed that, spoken that, and have come to believe that. I do this because ultimately, these girls are my friends. I love them. We are called to covenantal relationships of love that require agape that is unconditional. So, sure, I help them go to school. But when Rwanda was my home, they were the frameworks, building blocks, and foundation for my life. They cooked me meals, showed me how to get around, and laughed with me. They protected me. They stayed with me. They do some of this – even now. We talk and I am reminded to be patient. To practice intentionality. They remind me what’s real in life – and what is not. That, is truly a relationship.

I love cross-cultural experiences because of that – you learn quickly that the human experience is far more wide and far-reaching than you can ever even grasp.

Here’s the kicker, though.

At least in my life, the kind of relationships I describe above?

You and I aren’t only called to do this kind of stuff for people thousands of miles away who may need the opportunity. We are called to seek ways to serve, share, and do life with the people in our inner-circle or periphery too. Just because we can build from afar doesn’t mean we aren’t called to build right next door.

In many ways, it’s harder to engage in covenant with those close to us – especially in proximity to our hearts, homes, and past. It might hurt a little more – just a warning.

But I can say this: God wants this. God seeks covenant with us, and in turn, exhorts us to a covenant relationship with other people. Moms, dads, brothers, bosses, roommates, whatever or whomever it may be. Can you do this with absolutely everyone? No, of course not. But live like you can. Live a bit like Jesus and your life might look a little different. It’s not a self-righteous thing, it’s a love thing. When you realize that, everything changes. It did with the girls in Rwanda and it’s happening with my life here too.

That’s transformation, my friends.
Love will change everything.

*

From Ephesians 4:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of Godand become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

the experience.

“Why do you believe in God?”

*

The drizzle of rain and sputtering puddles around the city glistened outside the metropolitan burger joint. I was in Brooklyn with Suzi; one of my dear friends from the Peace Corps, and sipping a peanut butter shake. I swallowed the sweet concoction and paused to answer the question with articulate conviction. I thought, “I can’t really describe it,” and the words felt hard to form. Later, while hiking in Buena Vista, I found the two sentences I had been seeking in that moment,

He has never failed me. He has never left me.

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My belief rests here and is then planted, rooted, and grown because of who Jesus calls us to be in our faith with God. Never again do I want to fumble when someone asks me why. It is a story, yes, but the beauty of our relationship with God is being able to share it.

*

In Him and by Him and for Him, all things hold together. – Colossians 1:16

Because brokenness manifests itself differently in our lives, the consequences develop in a multitude of ways. In my own life, control has gripped my heart and often directed my path. On the surface, it’s not so troubling – I succeeded in my drive to be the best athlete I could be, completed a degree at a prestigious college, and blossomed in development work as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda. I love people, working hard, and maintaining many fruitful relationships. Yet, often I have done all this to mask my own pain and hurt. If I could manage it all – in my own strength – I would be just fine, right?

Um, no.

For the past 3 years He has patiently and intentionally dismantled every notion of my own power. He used Rwanda in particular to reveal this to me. More miraculously, He used one of His daughters, Divine, to speak enough wisdom into my life that I could begin to accept what God really has for me.

We bickered once over something silly. She was washing clothes in a basin just perfectly, and when I came alongside her and she tried correcting my form, I got mad. The blue soap continued to press and push in her hands until she dropped it and water plopped near her elbows as she stood up, looked in my eyes, and said, “Heather, you are not perfect, you cannot be perfect… why do you try so hard? You have a fear to be weak. But you have Jesus. You can be calm and rest. Don’t fear, my friend.”

Wow. Talk about truth in your face.

That’s how Rwanda was entirely. The joys, the students, the pain, and the poverty. Yet, by becoming a part of that community, I had to release my own assumptions, desires, and will. I just was and freely accepted what was becoming. When I came back home, my faith in The Lord grew out of totally necessity, but my belief in myself diminished.

Who was I? …What now?

It became a year of deep pain too. Questions of identity, issues with eating properly, pain from watching my brother work through his own issues, and a loss of overall belonging nagged and drug on.

However, in the last year I also depended on God more than ever, found a church home, and began to write and share about this cultural and faith struggle more and more. I began to realize how blessed I have been through it all and that He has always provided.

*

At 26, for me, God wants more.

Wired to passionately serve with others from all different places, I must submit my control, my broken heart, and my fear of vulnerability to do so in the name of God. I must forge on with a recommitted heart. And so, I will be committing 2 months this summer to The Experience.

*

The Experience is a 58-day equipping program that takes a group of young adults through training, ministry, life planning & coaching. Practical skills training will be the focus for the first several weeks in Denver and this will continue in travel overseas to understand cross-cultural ministry in application. The commonality of all sustained relationships I have built cross-culturally – be it in Vietnam, Ghana, or Rwanda – has been God Himself.

The Experience will expound upon that even further. Following time overseas, the program will send us to serve as leaders of a summer camp for youth exploring Jesus in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Towards the end, our team will work across the United States in ministry opportunities before spending the final phase learning in depth who God made me to be as I prepare to continue my work across cultures.

The Experience is unique and presents itself at a timely point in my life.

Later this Spring when tax season comes to a close (!!), I will finish my time with the financial firm I have been so fortunate to work with this past year. Then, I will begin The Experience from mid-May to mid-July. Following this commitment and beginning in late July, I will resume working cross-culturally as I begin a full-time position with The Women’s Bakery – (click to find out more!) a parent organization that oversees independent and women-operated bakeries in East Africa by providing training, ongoing support, and education. I will work from the United States, but inevitably, will develop relationships across cultural and social lines. Continuing this ever-present passion, I realize that for myself, God must be at the source of it. The Experience will help me do that.

Whatever it is that God has planned for me, it can only be realized with the help of others. Prayer is of the utmost importance as I allow God to lead me and submit to my own plans, power, and control. If you can please pray for this program and my journey through it the next few months that would be greatly appreciated.

Also, I would ask that you prayerfully consider financially partnering with me regarding this training and equipping opportunity.

The cost for the program itself is $5600. This includes housing (I will be living with other program students for the duration of the two months), food, international and domestic travel, teaching, and any needs I would incur during my time in training. Additionally, I will be seeking support to help cover my expenses while I am not living at home (including my rent, loan payments, health insurance, and the Rwanda girls’ education). Those costs equal $2400.

It’s mighty expensive, but as my mother was quick to assure me: this is the life of a missionary.

Whether that becomes the final road I take is uncertain, but as a member of our striving “beloved community”, I hope you can think of this as an investment of resources into people, a movement, and changed lives. It’s an educational experience that allows God’s love to develop and grow.

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If you are able and willing you can support me here: http://kbm.donorpages.com/TheExperience/HeatherNewell/

You may also write a check to Forge and mail it to: 14485 E Evans Ave., Denver, Colorado 80014.

You can include my name “Heather Newell” in the memo.

If you have any questions, or would like to speak further, please call, email, or visit me on my blog website listed below. You can also learn more about Forge and refer to their annual guide at: www.forgeforward.org/annual-guide.

Thank you, love you, and God Bless,

Heather Newell

heathermnewell@yahoo.com

720.288.6697

www.ikundayou.wordpress.com

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