by Christine Lyon, courtesy of the North Shore News
A typical Blewman family vacation might involve a road trip to Kelowna or a few days at a log cabin in the woods. This summer, though, the Lynn Valley residents have their sights set further afield. Mom Jill and her three kids James, 17, Katie, 15, and Ben, eight, are departing for Rwanda on Aug. 2 and will spend three weeks in the east-central African country. This is no carefree fun-in-the-sun holiday, rather, the Blewmans are going overseas as volunteers with North Vancouver-based charity organization Embrace Rwanda.
“It’s neat to be able to be going as a family,” says Jill, whose husband Paul is staying behind to hold down the fort. “Even though we’ll be having the same experience, we’ll all have different takeaways and different perspectives on it when we come home.”
Jill first learned about Embrace Rwanda after reading about its founder and executive director Hilary King in the North Shore News last spring. The charity supports communities in poverty-stricken areas of rural Rwanda through programs focused on maternal health, early childhood education, vocational training, and economic development. Normally, when Jill reads an article that piques her interest, she’ll think, “Oh, that’s so cool,” and then move on with her day. This time, though, something drew her in.
“I went down to the computer and emailed Hilary right away.”
An elementary teacher with the North Vancouver School District, Jill figured she could help out by creating learning resources to send to Rwanda. But after meeting King for coffee, she was motivated to do more. Before she knew it, she was back home chatting with her husband and “delicately” broached the subject of actually going to Rwanda to volunteer at a preschool.
“He agreed that it was an amazing experience to participate in.”
Then it came time to convince her kids to come along. Her eldest, James, who graduated from Argyle secondary in June, admits he was a bit skeptical when she first pitched the summer trip.
“Oh wow, what’s mom got planned now?” he thought to himself. But when he realized it wasn’t just talk, that his mom was serious, the idea grew on him. “As I heard more and more about it, I got more interested.”
During the school year, James networked with classmates and received lots of in-kind donations to bring overseas, including soccer balls from the North Shore Girls Soccer Club (which he’ll need to deflate before packing). He and his sister, Katie, also set up a donation box at Argyle to collect new and gently used school supplies and ended up receiving far more than they expected. Katie, meanwhile, is a member of Argyle’s Schools for Africa club, which raises funds for various charitable organizations that support causes in Africa.
“It’s nice to do,” Katie says, “but it’s not really the same as going and seeing where your money’s going.”
It’s not often that Embrace Rwanda brings youth on its volunteer trips, but this summer is an exception. Of the 10 people going, half are under 25 – the three young Blewmans, plus a 15-year-old and a 22-year-old. King says the young team members will be a huge asset in the preschools.
“They will be great at interacting with the children and just helping to involve the children,” she says.
The locals enrolled in Embrace Rwanda’s vocational training program have formed a recreational soccer team and King expects the players will be thrilled to kick the ball around with some young Canadians.
“They’ll want to practise their English and they’ll want to find out about Canada and they’re going to ask young people,” she says, explaining most residents in the region they are visiting speak Kinyarwanda as a first language, but schools in Rwanda recently transitioned to English instruction.
King founded Embrace Rwanda nearly a decade ago. In 2006, the North Vancouver resident went on a tour of a rural Rwandan hospital with a Lower Mainland Anglican church group. There, she saw a premature baby curled up in a washing bowl next to a wood stove to keep warm. At the time, King was working at Lions Gate Hospital and was struck by the profound difference between the two health-care facilities. She didn’t have the capacity to raise funds for a brand new hospital in Rwanda, but she did have experience in community development. In 2008, she established the Rwandan-based Healthy Mum’s Project, which helps mothers through pregnancy by offering consultations with health workers and giving a goat to each mother to help provide better nutrition and a source of income.
From there, Embrace Rwanda expanded its service offerings. It now runs an early childhood education project to prepare young children for primary school and give them a foundation in English. It’s also introduced a vocational training centre to teach useful trades to adults, and an economic development program that organize microloans to help residents start small businesses.Currently, about 130 Rwandan staff run the various programs. King, who takes no salary, travels to the country twice a year at her own expense with a team of volunteers who also pay their own way.
The Blewmans have obtained their visas, received their travel vaccinations, and packed their anti-malaria medication. On Tuesday, they’ll fly into Toronto, catch a connecting flight to Brussels, then hop on another plane bound for Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. There, the family will do their orientation and visit a memorial commemorating the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people by the Hutu ethnic majority. From Kigali, they will travel south to the town of Kigeme where Embrace Rwanda is headquartered. Kigeme is also the site of the charity’s biggest preschool program where the Blewmans will do most of their volunteer work. Before they get to work with the children, though, King plans to take them to visit a local family who live in a mud-brick house with a dirt floor and stone fire in order to get a better sense of how people live in rural Rwanda.
“They need to see that before they go and start teaching children in preschool, or even in the vocational training, otherwise they’ve got no concept,” King says.
In addition to Kigeme, the Blewmans will also be visiting a remote community where Embrace Rwanda is just introducing early childhood education. It’s on an isolated island accessible only by boat in nearby Lake Kivu.
“They’ll be really exposed to some culture shock there,” King says, explaining it can be stressful for first-time visitors to get used to all the curious stares from villagers who rarely see foreigners.
There will be climate shock too. August is the height of Rwanda’s long dry season.
“It will be about 30 degrees, but because it’s so close to the equator, the sun is so much hotter,” King says.
Stripping down to shorts and a tank top isn’t an option. Culturally, Rwandan women don’t expose their knees or armpits and men don’t wear short pants, unless they are playing sports, King explains. “It’s modesty really.”
For the Blewmans, volunteering overseas as a family is not just an opportunity to help those in need, it’s also a huge learning opportunity.
“I’m looking forward to that global perspective of being able to get outside of our bubble in North Van,” says Jill, adding she’s also keen to learn more about the lasting impact of the genocide. “I’m really interested in the reconciliation piece and the forgiveness and the healing.”
Judging by the amount of campaigning and prep work her kids have done in recent weeks, it’s clear the learning has already begun for them. Her youngest, Ben, came home from Lynn Valley elementary last month with his Scholastic book order in hand and announced he wanted to get a balloon animal kit so he could make inflatable creatures for the kids he meets in Rwanda. Hearing that was a “mission accomplished” moment for Jill.
“My children have moved outside of what they want and need to ‘What can I give?’”
The North Shore community has also been very supportive when it comes to in-kind and cash donations, she adds.
“We’ve had nothing but encouragement and positive support to go and do our thing, so that’s been really great.”With their departure date inching ever closer, the Blewmans are remaining calm and collected about the life-changing experience ahead.
“We don’t really have any expectations. We’re going with open hearts and open minds to just be part of another community,” Jill says.