We're back from Rugarika and incredibly grateful for the time spent with the wonderful people we are privileged to serve!
Were you able to keep up with our blog? We documented each day of our trip in the "Rugarika Trip 2023" category. You can find it HERE. Additionally, if you have donated to GIFTS Rwanda in the past 18 months I sent you a personalized video message with a link to the blog. If you haven't received it, please reply click HERE so I can update your contact information and send you your video!
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We extend our heartfelt gratitude for your crucial role in making this trip a reality, enabling us to witness your impactful efforts in combating poverty and fostering lasting change. The future appears exceptionally promising, and our enthusiasm to support the people of Rugarika in achieving their aspirations has never been greater.
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Today is the day we must say goodbye, and it's a bittersweet moment, to say the least. Our time here has introduced us to some of the most loving, giving, and joyful people, making it incredibly difficult to say goodbye. Fortunately, it's not really a farewell, but more of a "see you soon."
We started the day early, meeting with Brigitte and Paterne to craft an Action Plan for presenting to the government, a vital step toward establishing a Rwandan NGO. Additionally, we mapped out a comprehensive action plan for the next five years. The people of Rugarika have truly inspired us, igniting our determination to work tirelessly to help them achieve their aspirations.
Albert joined Karina and me on this journey, initially as an escort, but as the days unfolded, he found himself passionately thinking of ways he could help. With his background in automotive and construction, he envisioned numerous ways to contribute to the community's betterment and he presented them to us at the end of our meeting. Witnessing his love for the people and his commitment to utilizing his skills to assist them was truly inspiring.
Our next stop took us to the market, where we picked up some gifts to take back home. Then, with heavy hearts, we headed to the airport to bid our farewells. Brigitte and Paterne are undoubtedly among the kindest individuals we've ever had the privilege to meet, and we are eternally grateful to have them as both colleagues and friends.
While we may be leaving Rwanda physically, our hearts remain firmly connected to this incredible place and its wonderful people. Until we return, we'll be hard at work in the States, dedicated to helping the people of Rugarika achieve the sustainable changes they need to lift themselves out of extreme poverty. The journey continues, and we can't wait to see what the future holds.
Today marked our final full day here, and it's safe to say we made every moment count. I couldn't have been more thrilled to spend my last day in the village, sporting my brand-new skirt courtesy of a gift from our New Mom Tailoring Group. Our day began with a quick stop to purchase hundreds of shoes, a small act that would make a world of difference to the families we were about to visit. Many of them were in dire need, either lacking shoes altogether or relying on worn-out pairs. Here, simple slides, costing just under $2, were the footwear of choice due to their durability.
Once we reached the village, we had the privilege of hearing from several women who had received goats from us. These women are now part of the group we've enrolled in our health insurance program, and their gratitude for the opportunity to access medical care was heartwarming. Over these past 7 days I have collected over 70 testimonials from various community members whose lives have been touched by GIFTS Rwanda, and the bonds we share with them are truly special.
Our day unfolded with visits to families in the homes that GIFTS Rwanda helped build through the generous contributions of donors like you. Armed with shoes and clothing, we felt a bit like Santa Claus, spreading joy wherever we went. At one stop, we observed how a family cared for the rabbits we had provided. Then, we trekked up steep hills to visit duplexes and descended to reach single homes. Despite living in remote areas, these families welcomed us with song and dance, a testament to their happiness and gratitude for the little they have. As we approached the last two homes, a young boy rushed out of his home and up the path to meet me with a heartwarming hug, despite never having met me before. His grip on my hand was firm, and he guided me to the next house after we finished visiting his home. I held him close as we spent time with the last family, and he remained by my side as we snapped pictures throughout the homes. Saying goodbye at the end of the day was bittersweet, but I made him a promise—I would be back soon, and the prospect of seeing him on my next visit filled me with excitement.
During our journey, we came across a family of six living under a makeshift shelter, a blanket propped up with a stick and a bush for shade. It was incredibly moving to convince the mother to accept our help in building a proper home for her family, and we'll be sure to keep you updated on the progress.
Each family we encountered has faced unimaginable challenges and hardships, yet their unwavering positivity, appreciation, and joy never falter. Their way of life serves as a powerful lesson for all of us. In fact, I believe that we can learn just as much from them as they can from us.
I am profoundly grateful for GIFTS Rwanda's partnership with the village of Rugarika and for the incredible opportunity I've had to serve this remarkable group of people. Together, we are making a difference, one step, one smile, and one heartfelt connection at a time.
I must admit, although I strive not to pick favorites among our twelve different projects, the Single Mom Tailoring Group holds a special place in my heart. Being a single mother in Rwanda is an extraordinary challenge, with limited job opportunities and persistent stigmas. I've been a part of GIFTS Rwanda for nearly two years now, and this was the very first project I had the privilege of launching from the ground up. Witnessing their progress, their genuine happiness, their overwhelming gratitude, and the love they share with one another fills me with immense joy. Take a look for yourself HERE. We talked, sewed, and I listed to their wants and needs. They made me a beautiful skirt I cannot wait to wear tomorrow and they even gave us a show of song and dance that filled the room with love and happiness.
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Our day started with a detour to the pharmacist on our way to the village. I had lost most of my voice a couple of days ago, and my throat had become raw and swollen. Despite having purchased cough drops the day before, my voice hadn't improved. I assured Brigitte that I was loading up on vitamin C and antioxidants, and that it would eventually improve, but she insisted we visit a local pharmacist. I'm genuinely grateful that she did.
Experiencing a Rwandan pharmacy was a fascinating and eye-opening experience. The pharmacist carefully examined my condition and prescribed four treatments for me. He took his time, displayed a remarkable depth of knowledge, and the cost was surprisingly minimal. To top it off, he even offered me his personal phone number in case I had any questions or encountered any issues. I couldn't help but mention that our healthcare system in the US could certainly learn a thing or two from his level of care and dedication. His response was a heartwarming mix of pride and joy, and meeting him was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my day.
From there we traveled to have a meeting with Fredrick, the leader of the Rugalika sector. In Rwanda, there's a hierarchy of villages, sectors, districts, provinces, and the country itself. During our visit this week, we were able to extend health insurance coverage to an additional 800 people, all thanks to your generous donations. This brings our coverage from 446 to an astounding 1246 individuals. The leaders of the village and sector were so moved by this gesture that they requested an in-person meeting to express their heartfelt thanks. It was a remarkable experience stepping inside the sector building and meeting the individuals who work diligently to run the village. They are profoundly grateful for our efforts to uplift the people of Rugalika from extreme poverty and have pledged to support our journey to become an NGO in Rwanda. While we're already a registered 501c3 non-profit in the US, obtaining the same status in Rwanda is no small feat. Once we secure this status, it will open doors for us to apply for Rwandan grants, providing the village with another avenue of funding. Fingers crossed, we can make it happen!
One of GIFTS Rwanda's earliest sustainable projects involved soap and bead making. In the afternoon we were able to meet the soap makers and bead artisans at Rugarika Primary School. This dynamic group comprises strong, joyful women who welcomed us with open arms, demonstrating their soap-making and bead-crafting skills. In support of their hard work, we purchased their entire inventory as gifts to bring home. I couldn't be prouder of their accomplishments, and I'm brimming with ideas on how we can further assist them in managing their finances and business needs.
I can honestly say that I've never had a day where I've smiled so much, and I will be eternally grateful for the open hearts of these remarkable women and the warm embrace of the children we met today. The love and positivity in this community are truly infectious, and it fuels our determination to continue making a meaningful impact in their lives.
What an extraordinary day it has been! Today, we had the incredible privilege of visiting the homes of our wonderful Rwandan team members, Brigitte and Paterne, along with a heartwarming reunion with Souzane Bizumutima, whom GIFTS Rwanda's founder, Shari Shelton, sponsored as a student a whole decade ago. It was a day filled with warmth, gratitude, and delightful surprises.
Our first stop was Souzane's home, where we were welcomed with open arms. Souzane, now a loving mother of two adorable girls aged 2 and 4, touched our hearts with her story. We came bearing gifts, as well as a book Karina and Shari had made from their last trip to visit her 8 years ago, which her family graciously received. Her children loved pointing her out in the video which you can see below. To our amazement, they presented us with an astonishing array of EIGHT different plates of fruits. You can see them here, along with Souzane's daughters playing and coloring with the items we brought. I must say, the tree tomatoes, a local delicacy, were my personal favorite, and I nearly devoured the entire plate! Their hospitality and joy, despite having so little by American standards, served as a poignant reminder that happiness is not found in material possessions but in the boundless love, gratitude, and compassion that reside in our hearts. Africa, with its wonderful people, has certainly taught us a valuable lesson.
Our journey to Souzane's home took us through three hours of breathtaking Rwandan landscapes. I could honestly drive through Rwanda all day and never tire of its beauty and charm. It truly is a place like no other, a treasure trove of natural wonders and warm-hearted hard-working people.
Next, we embarked on a two-hour journey to Brigitte's home. Her husband, Jerome, has been instrumental in helping get ready to start a chicken farm in Rugarika. He currently has one at his home that he will emulate after the construction is complete. Meeting him in person was a joyous experience. Jerome is a gem of a person, and it was heartwarming to witness the love between him and Brigitte. Their sons were equally delightful, embracing the gifts and toys we brought them. We even had the chance to visit the chicken farm on their property and make the acquaintance of their cow!
Our final stop took us an hour away to Paterne's home. Gisele, Paterne's wife, greeted us warmly at the door, along with their charming son, Aldo, and two of his friends who were staying with them. We shared the joy of giving toys to the children and relished in the delicious dinner of potatoes and rabbit. Surprisingly, the rabbit tasted just like buffalo wings - it was really good!
Our journey back home, which took an hour and a half, allowed us to traverse three of the five Rwandan provinces. We even caught a glimpse of the US Embassy and where Kagame works (you are forbidden to take pictures and there are cameras and military surrounding it so no photos of that to share with you)!. It feels like we've explored so much of Rwanda today. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to Paterne and Brigitte for spending over 9 hours driving us around and opening their homes to us. We are incredibly blessed!
In closing, today was a reminder of the immense beauty and kindness that exists in Rwanda and its people. It's a place that has left an indelible mark on our hearts, and we can't help but reflect on the valuable lessons we've learned about life, happiness, and the importance of love and compassion. Thank you, Rwanda, for this unforgettable day!
Today was an incredible day as we had the privilege of meeting the graduates whose education so many of you have generously sponsored. It was a heartwarming experience to see the impact of your support in person. They expressed their gratitude to us, and by extension, to all of you, which truly made our day.
Listening to their stories and getting to know each of these remarkable individuals was incredibly powerful. We had the opportunity to capture their testimonials, and we'll be sharing them with you soon, so please keep an eye on our newsletter to ensure you don't miss out!
As we settled into the classroom where we would be teaching, we couldn't help but notice a crowd of children and adults gathering outside the door. Curiosity piqued, and as I made my way to the door to my surprise, more families were streaming into the school premises. Paterne, our dedicated team member, gathered them into a circle and had a talk with them.
I approached Brigitte to understand the situation, and she explained that they had heard about our visit and were eager to have their children join GIFTS Rwanda's program. Paterne assured them that our presence wouldn't change the process. The process entails them adding their children's names to a list, which Paterne, Brigitte, and Pastor Faustin Ruhirwa (who oversees the school and church) review together. Then, they carefully select the children with the most pressing needs. It was heartening to witness how Paterne and Brigitte skillfully managed the situation, ensuring that your generous donations are used to effect the most meaningful change possible.
Once Paterne concluded his discussion with the community members, we emerged from the classroom with the graduates and kicked off the day with some delightful games. We played a few Rwandan games before they eagerly requested Karina and me to introduce them to an American game. Our choice: Red Light Green Light, and it turned out to be an absolute riot. You can enjoy the videos below!
After the games, we returned to the classroom and distributed more Ridges Fun Run shirts. They loved them and immediately put them on! Karina and I then addressed them on topics vital to young adult health, including menstruation and pregnancy prevention. The highlight of the session was Paterne stepping up like a rock star to demonstrate the correct way to put a condom on a water bottle. His explanations were exceptional, and the students were fully engaged in the conversation.
We wrapped up the talk by sitting down with the students, where they shared their life stories, dreams, and needs. Their openness and courage in talking to us were truly remarkable, and we made sure to express our deep appreciation for being in partnership with them and for the opportunity to spend time getting to know each of them.
To conclude the day, we all gathered in the courtyard for a group picture, and each graduate graciously shared their testimonials with me, which I will be sharing soon. Don't forget to sign up for our newsletter by emailing HERE so you can be among the first to hear their inspiring stories!
During our conversations, the graduates expressed their dreams of attending university or vocational school. Unfortunately, this endeavor is costly, and many of them are facing challenges finding employment. They inquired if GIFTS Rwanda could offer any assistance, and I assured them that I would bring their requests to our board. It costs approximately $1200 a year here to attend university.
Before bidding them farewell, we brought them back into the classroom and surprised them with donut cakes, Fanta, balls, and some small toys for their younger siblings. They were so excited to share their gifts with their families!
Thank you all for making days like today possible. Your generosity and support are changing lives and creating brighter futures. We can't wait to share more stories and updates with you, so stay tuned! Together, we are making a real difference.
What an extraordinary day it has been – a rare opportunity to spend time with the children whose education is made possible by your generous donations! We started the day with an energetic game of "grab and hug" where the teacher called out a number, and you had to quickly connect with that many people for a hug. The twist? No hugging the same person twice! It might sound simple, but it was an absolute blast and perhaps my personal favorite. The joy in their laughter was infectious. Check out this short video of it HERE! Afterward, we played a game where two individuals took center stage, and they'd make requests of each other, such as singing, making each other laugh, or sharing a hug. The interactions were heartwarming, and the kids' creativity knew no bounds. Enjoy these heartwarming photos and videos capturing these fun moments. Click HERE to watch two boys play the request game and HERE to watch two girls play it!
We then had the privilege of delivering a talk to the primary students about what it means to be a good child and community member in Rwanda. I had prepared 14 points on the topic but was pleasantly surprised when the class contributed nine of those points themselves. Their manners, confidence, and engagement in the lesson left a lasting impression.
Following the lesson, we distributed brand new shirts that I had collected from my daughter's school, Ridges Elementary School. Thanks to the generosity of Ridges PAC (Parent Advisory Committee), we brought over 100 brand new shirts from their past Fun Run events. The children were overjoyed with their new attire, and we even managed to provide extras to the siblings of the students, including a little one brought by her older sister while their mom was at work in the clinic.
While we were conducting our presentations, the secondary students enjoyed playing in the courtyard with the balls we had brought along. After we switched groups, the primary students had their turn to play while we addressed the secondary students about adolescent health and wellness, and then had a more intimate conversation with the girls about menstrual health and pregnancy. It was a bit outside of our comfort zone, but it had been requested by our Rwandan team, and the depth of the discussions, the questions they asked, and the thoughtful summaries they wrote afterward made it clear why. We had a candid and meaningful conversation, and I believe they gained valuable insights that will shape their perspectives and decisions in the future.
Paterne also asked the secondary students if any of them wanted to stand and express what they day meant to them. I was so impressed by how many did, and they practiced their English while doing it! Below is a video from one young man. I will add subtitles later but think you'll enjoy hearing him speak in front of his classmates from his heart.
To sweeten the day, we treated everyone to Fanta and cake donuts, along with whiteboards, coloring books, crafts, and crayons. I also had the pleasure of recording touching testimonials from eight of the students. Their eloquence and confidence left me once again in awe. We wrapped up this incredible day with a heartwarming group photo under the Rwandan flag in the school courtyard. It was a day filled with special moments that will stay with us forever.
As if this day wasn't already overflowing with special moments, it also happened to be Karina and Albert's 5-year anniversary! Paterne and Brigitte had a surprise in store for them when we returned to our hotel. Amidst their busy schedules, they managed to order and pick up a cake, complete with a sparkling firework candle, and arranged for the DJ to play the couple a beautiful Rwandan love song. It was a magical ending to a long and unforgettable day. I was able to capture the moment on video and you can check it out HERE! Albert, Karina, and I feel immensely grateful to work alongside Brigitte and Paterne, and to have formed such wonderful friendships with them.
Today has been an incredible journey, surpassing all my expectations in terms of impact, inspiration, and raw emotion. Our day began at the Genocide Memorial Museum, an experience that touched me deeply. Witnessing their unwavering honesty, compassion, and dedication to reconciliation left me in awe. They're not only educating Rwandans but also setting a global example in preventing genocides.
After our museum visit, we enjoyed a hearty lunch before heading towards the village we hold dear, Rugarika. The journey, though challenging due to the winding roads, was worth every bump and turn. The stunning beauty of the landscape was only rivaled by its remoteness – now I truly understand why Paterne, our dedicated team member, advocated for a motorcycle to navigate these tricky roads efficiently. Motorcycles are indeed a game-changer here, allowing quick and nimble travel.
We had the privilege of visiting the village clinic, where we spoke with both medical personnel and patients. Brigitte got her blood pressure taken from one of the medical workers. One brave mother had recently undergone surgery after childbirth, battling complications and infections while caring for her newborn. We were able to talk to her and she let us take her picture. Her resilience is truly remarkable.
Our excitement grew as we reached the new plot of land made possible by your generous contributions. Seeing the near-completion of the chicken farm and community room and the construction workers sense of accomplishment made me so proud and happy for them. To give you a closer look, we've captured some raw videos with Brigitte, Paterne, and myself – a small attempt to make you feel like you're right here with us, witnessing the progress you've facilitated. I apologize for the rawness of the videos. I will add subtitles to better understand us later, but wanted to get you these so you can see the progress being made in real-time we are witnessing together.
Meeting the construction workers, mothers, and the vibrant children was heartwarming. Their enthusiasm, happiness, and curiosity about us created an unforgettable bond. Their gratitude for the opportunities this project brings to them, their children, and future generations resonated deeply.
Below shows the edge of the plot of land and Brigitte, Albert and I looking down at where the construction workers have to go to get water.
We then moved just a stone's throw away to the primary school, where your support has a direct impact on 20 children. Across the street lies the secondary school, where your support benefits 50 of the students, along with Rugarika's central church – a hub of activities, including the mom sewing group. Pastor Faustin Ruhirwa greeted us with a warm welcome while beautiful music played in the background. We soon realized it was the choir practicing and we get to go inside and listen. It was such a beautiful surprise. After a couple of songs we got to talk to the choir members and I recognized a couple people from testimonials Paterne has given us in the past. They told us how grateful they are for our support and how they are asking God to be with us helping direct and guide us. I was overcome by their warm welcome, interconnectedness, and kindness toward us as well as each other. Conversations with choir members revealed the profound appreciation they hold for our involvement and the connection they feel to us. It was a beautiful reminder of the shared humanity that unites us.
Our day concluded with a visit to the new mom sewing room, brought to life by your contributions. We enjoyed watching Paterne and Brigitte show us how they work which ended in a bit of a competition that I believe Paterne won ;). Watch and decide for yourself by clicking HERE.
It was one of the most beautiful, emotional, life changing days of my life and made me excited for many more.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving me the opportunity to serve this communtiy with you.
What an absolutely amazing start to our journey in this incredible country! While the 30-hour travel time was quite the marathon, filled with its fair share of challenges from beginning to end, the enthusiasm and positive energy kept us going.
Our adventure began with the task of condensing our carry-ons by half due to weight restrictions – talk about a packing puzzle! Then I lost my watch going through Qatar airport security, and, with the assistance of a native Rwandan airport attendee, persuaded a Qatar airport manager to return it to me.
Navigating through customs proved to be an unexpected hurdle as our supplies for the villagers of Rugarika raised some eyebrows. We had to patiently explain the purpose of each item, convincing them that these essentials were meant to make a difference. Even after the meticulous explanation, we hit a roadblock. However, our tenacity paid off when a Rwandan airport employee I had been chatting with, dressed in military uniform, intervened with his reassuring words, and we were finally on our way.
After the customs adventure, the saga with money exchange unfolded. While the majority of our funds were smoothly exchanged, an unexpected twist occurred with a portion deemed too old for their liking. But hey, every challenge is just another step in the adventure, right?
Amidst the whirlwind, the welcoming faces of Brigitte and Paterne greeted us with open arms and stunning bouquets of flowers. Their warmth was like a breath of fresh air, melting away any travel fatigue we might have had. From that point on, they’ve been our anchors, guiding us through every step of this incredible journey.
Our first day was peppered with precious moments. Sharing breakfast with Brigitte and Paterne on Karina and Albert's balcony allowed us to soak in the surroundings and each other's company. Finally settling into our rooms was a welcome luxury after the long trip.
Dinner was not just about good food, but a chance to chart our course for the week ahead. After dinner, with all six bags open before us, we meticulously organized the gifts, toys, shirts, balls, and supplies. The excitement was palpable as we eagerly looked forward to tomorrow – the day we start sharing these gifts in the village.
And what’s on the agenda for tomorrow morning? A visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial – a poignant and meaningful way to pay our respects.
So, as we wrap up this whirlwind of a day, we're thrilled to share some pictures and videos that capture the essence of our adventure. Stay tuned as we continue to explore, learn, and make a positive impact, one step at a time! 🌍📸🌟
Can you believe it?! In just one short week, we are traveling to Rwanda to visit the village we are serving, Rugarika! We are incredibly excited to meet the people of Rugarika and to be in Rwanda for the first time since Shari and Karina's initial trip in 2014. But the part we're MOST excited about? Witnessing firsthand the extraordinary impact you've made as a donor and supporter!
Why We Are Going: Being physically removed from a situation can make it difficult to visualize and connect with one’s impact, and that is a large reason as to why we are going. As part of our work to support you and help make your impact more tangible, we will be documenting our trip through photo, video, and blog to capture the real lives that you’ve helped transform. We can’t wait to share these photo's, videos and stories from GIFTS Rwanda with you in the next few months!
Guess What Has Begun?!?!....
We have broken ground for the community center!!! This center will provide a safe space for our new mother tailoring co-op to learn, teach, and grow their sewing business. Our long-term goal for this building is to have four rooms! There will be a room for the sewing co-op business and sewing trainings (which is already underway!), a room for our soap making project, a room for making bags using beads, a small room for stock, and a room for meetings and educational talks for the community, including topics such as fighting malnutrition and promoting reproductive health for young girls and their mothers. We also have plans for farming activities and the chicken house that we raised money for in 2021!
We are SO EXCITED to see and document the land and progress for you in the upcoming weeks!! Below is a small preview...
The purpose of this trip is to achieve the following goals:
Please continue to share your suggestions on what you would like us to see and do while we are in Rugarika, documenting the progress and impact of your generous donations. Your input is invaluable in ensuring that we make the most of our time there and serve you in the best possible way.
Additionally, please continue to send us any tips and advice you have for our safe travels. It is important to us to take all necessary precautions and ensure a smooth and secure trip. Your guidance will be highly valued in making our journey a successful one.
We are eagerly looking forward to meeting the individuals we have the privilege of serving and witnessing the communities progress in taking collective ownership and responsibility for the projects we have started together.