Imbabazi, an orphanage in Rwanda founded by American Roz Carr after the 1994 genocide, is celebrating what would have been Carr’s 100th birthday with special events held throughout the Connecticut area.
Devon Kuntzman, executive director of Imbabazi, visited Fairfield in September, when she spoke at Greens Farms Academy and was the honored guest at a fund-raiser at the Fairfield home of Justine Fellows.
Imbabazi, which in Kinyarwanda means “a place where you will receive all the love and care a mother would give,” has a long-standing relationship with Fairfield County. Many residents knew Carr and have been supporting Imbabazi for years. More recently, teachers from Greens Farms Academy visited Rwanda. Fellows, a teacher there, fell in love with Imbabazi’s work and its story. She decided to bring more visibility to the organization in Fairfield by hosting the event, which Kuntzman hopes will become an annual gathering.
Fellows became involved with Imbabazi this past summer working with the International Education Exchange.
“I was struck by the many meaningful projects that the organization had taken on,” she said. “Beyond the initial care of orphans (from the genocide as they slowly grow up and become independent), they were building an outreach programs in the community, including English and computer instruction, providing employment for many Rwandans through an established farm and much more.”
On Kuntzman’s Connecticut visit, she shared with supporters more about this changing nature of Imbabazi’s role. The Rwandan government enacted a new policy at the beginning of this year to make sure all orphans will be living with families in the community instead of in an orphanage. Imbabazi has begun a reunification program to place children in safe family environments, including distant relatives and surrogate families.
“We have qualified staff members who visit families before and after the reunification to ensure living conditions are safe and satisfactory and that the child is adjusting well,” Kuntzman explained. “Upon reunification, Imbabazi continues to support their education and personal needs and provides financial assistance to the family.”
As the orphanage transitions more into a community center offering computer classes, sports programs, and music and English language lessons, the children who have lived there are moving on to secondary school, which in Rwanda is boarding school. Imbabazi will continue a close relationship with all its children and families, supporting both school fees and stipends.
“Our focus is on education. It is our hope that each and every child will go on to lead meaningful, independent lives in the community. In the last 18 years more than 400 children have called Imbabazi their home and now we support 60,” Kuntzman said.
Some of the other current programs Imbabazi supports include the Textbook Project, which is working to provide new textbooks for the local Kinyundo School, the primary school children attend, and the Roz Carr Cultural Center, which includes a museum, a retrospective of Carr’s life, a computer and multimedia center, a music room, and library. The Transition to Independent Living project helps to prepare the children for independent living by teaching independent living skills, helping them find group housing and providing the tools necessary to pursue their trades, assisting with household budgets, mentoring, and conducting follow-up visits to guide them as they find their way in the adult world.
The nonprofit award-winning photography program Through the Eyes of Children: The Rwanda Project has been in place at Imbabazi for 12 years. The project began as a photographic workshop in 2000, conceived by American photographer David Jiranek. Using disposable cameras, the children originally took pictures for themselves and to share with others, exploring their community and finding beauty as the country struggled to rebuild.
The children who have been a part of the program from the start are now young adults who are taking the project out into the larger world through exhibits and by teaching photography to other young Rwandans.
“We are very proud of them,” said Jennifer Howard, a Greenwich resident who manages the program. “All of the funds raised through the children’s photography have gone back to the orphanage to cover education costs for the children, and we have started a university program where we are helping to find university sponsors for our photo kids that qualify for college in Rwanda.”
Joanne McKinney, another Fairfield County resident, has been the photography project director since 2003.
“It has been a gift and a privilege in my life to work with the kids; I consider them my own,” she said. “To continue to visit a place and get to really know it and the people — my whole experience has been nothing short of amazing.”
For Fairfield residents who would like to help in other ways than financially, there is always a need. People may help by spreading the message of Imbabazi and Roz Carr, or by hosting a book club event that discusses Carr’s memoir, Land of a Thousand Hills.
Imbabazi is also in need of a volunteer to research and help it apply for grants.
Children may help by writing letters or sending small care packages to the children.
“Children are very passionate and can be great catalysts to motivate people to help others,” Kuntzman said. “They can help Imbabazi by coming together and talking about issues that people living in Rwanda face, such as public health, education and food security. Also, they can organize small events at their school such as a walk-a-thon or a bake sale. Several small initiatives can build into something significant.”
As Imbabazi embarks on the next chapter of an already beautiful and inspiring story of creating home and educational opportunities, there is still much work to do, but also much reason for celebration.
“Holding true to Roz’s vision, we are committed to the future of children in Rwanda. By gaining access to education, children become future leaders.” Kuntzman said. “Children are the future of a bright tomorrow for Rwanda.”