David and Sherry Jenkins of Carbonear have a lot of hope when it comes to the future of Rwandans still grappling with the devastating after-effects of the genocide 25 years ago during which hundreds of thousands of people died.
In 2008 the Jenkins first learned about Shelter Them and the twin sisters who started the charitable organization, Jocelyne Butoyi Alexandre and Josephine Burkuru-Murphy.
The genocide of 1994 mainly claimed the lives of Tutsis. The twins are Tutsis, born in the neighbouring country of Burundi. They moved to Rwanda in 1994 and witnessed many horrifying events. It wasn’t until 1997 that they were able to emigrate Canada.
After seeing them on a TV program and finding a contact number, the Jenkins got the ball rolling on an 11-year relationship that has seen thousands of dollars from Newfoundlanders poured into the East African nation, where a population of 12 million make do in a place approximately one-quarter the size of the island of Newfoundland.
Shelter Them was not a big operation back in 2008 when the sisters were sending money back home to their mom, who looked after a feeding program at a church a couple of days a week. But with substantial support from people on the northern Avalon, its reach has grown considerably.
David, a board member for Shelter Them who is in charge of fundraising, said it became apparent on their first trip to Rwanda in 2009 that the food program didn’t go far enough.
Ambitions grew starting with a child-sponsorship program, which takes children who are orphaned or homeless off the streets and puts them into the care of a foster parent. What started as a project with half-a-dozen homes in the capital city of Kigali now has expanded to include an additional village in Bugesera, an area three hours away. That land was donated by the government. It was among the hardest hit areas for casualties during the Rwandan genocide.
“We have over 100 kids now in our sponsorship program, and it’s not about giving aid now. It’s about getting them to design their own future,” said David.
Shelter Them is building a community centre in Bugesera and will open an early-childhood development centre June 1 in Kigali.
The Jenkins give big credit to people living on the northern Avalon — David estimates 50 per cent of the charity’s support comes from that region alone.
“We have a lot of friends and a lot of people who are not friends but have seen our postings on social media,” he said. “They believe in the cause.”
Every two years, a group of sponsors pays its own way to visit Rwanda. The most recent trip took place last November.
To mark 25 years since the horrific genocide, Shelter Them has launched a new campaign called Hearts for Rwanda. The project will build further public awareness about the needs of underprivileged children in the country. As part of the campaign, the Jenkins recently paid a visit to school children at Tricon Elementary in Bay de Verde. There, students purchased hearts to show support. They also were able to meet children in Rwanda through a Skype video chat.
“Those kids in Rwanda were singing to the kids in Bay de Verde and then Bay de Verde sang a song back to them,” David said, noting it was the first time they’ve tried this with the school children in Rwanda. “The world is not that big now when you’ve got all the technology … I think it’s great that kids can connect with other parts and see outside their own communities and outside Newfoundland.”
David said the first slide shown in a presentation at Tricon was a picture of the Jenkins’ three grandchildren.
“We want the kids in Rwanda to have access to the same basic needs as our grandkids, which is good food, good health, a good place to live, and education and opportunities.”
Shelter Them has also taken on projects to empower people in Rwanda, such as a farming project where families grow their own food and sell the surplus. Another focuses on acquiring goats — an animal that offers milk to drink and manure useful for gardening.