Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Family Newsletter

Wishing you and your loved ones a year full of joy, love and inspiration.
There are more people than a heart could ever hold, More places than you could ever see
The scrolling list of needs just grows and goes, 24 hours, 7 days a week
‘Cause we think about so much, And do nothing at all, Afraid that what we have to give is so small

You don’t have to save the world, All that hero talk is only superficial stuff
If you want to change the world, What you’ve got to do is show up, show up, just show up

We’re so used to an immediate response, So used to giving up when things don’t work
We know the long obedience is hard, No shortcuts will make it easier
‘Cause the journey is so long, But the difference is made, By the million small steps along the way

You don’t have to save the world, All that hero talk is only superficial stuff
If you want to change the world, What you’ve got to do is show up, show up, just show up

No great things have I done, No great things have I done
Only small things with great love, And love makes a world of difference, You don’t have to save it

You don’t have to save the world, All that hero talk is only superficial stuff
If you want to change the world, What you’ve got to do is show up, show up, just show up

Jill Phillips, Show Up

Nathanael. Our 2 1/2 year old little boy is gentle, pure and strong. He loves life and has a smile and a hello for everyone. He spends most mornings with our house-helper, while Jennifer homeschools Lian, and as a result is our first bilingual child and understands everything in Kinyarwandan and English. He loves to talk, but we are still waiting for when we can understand him. He loves his Nanna and Poppa and is always asking to Skype with them. This boy can dance and loves to play the piano and drums. He is a wonderful brother and wakes up in the morning calling for Anna. As he is very social, we’ve decided to enroll him in Anna’s French preschool in January. He may understand three languages before he can speak one. He is a little fish in the water and loves the shores of Kivu as well as Shadow Lake in Vermont. He will truly melt your hearts when you meet him, as he has ours.

Anna. Our 5 year old is a creative spirit! It is so fun to see each of our children develop their own loves and talents this year. Anna’s highlight of the year was performing in Ballet Rwanda’s Nutcracker with her friends. She practiced every night and was poised and beautiful in the performance. We changed preschools on her again and she loves her new school, Le Petit Callines. In three months, she is already reciting poems in French. We also found a Chinese tutor, so the girls go twice a week to meet Lao Shi in this tiny apartment in a downtown alley where their teacher makes and sells tofu and soy milk. Jennifer has to speak in Kinyarwandan to the Chinese husband in order to communicate with his wife. Anna has also started playing soccer on a new international kids’ league. She was the only girl and the smallest player at first and we were so proud of how she overcame her fears. Her new best friend is Marcel Urquhart, who was adopted into our partners’ family this year. They are like two peas in a pod.

Lian. Lian has also really come into her own this year. A friend coaches the National Rwandan Tae Kwon Do team and offered to give Lian private lessons. Every morning she practices with her dad and in six months she has earned her yellow belt and blue stripe. She is now inspired to train for a competition next year. She attends 3rd grade homeschool with Mommy and has loved learning about Ancient History this year. Another new hobby this year is horseback riding. It has been another great joy to see her overcoming fears and learning to ride. As there is not much entertainment and we don’t own a TV, Lian is the queen of creativity and loves making up games, art projects and stories with her sister. Our house is usually a disaster as a result, but we love watching them bond.

Highlights for Dano and Jennifer.
Seeing Karisimbi Partners grow and highlighted by the Daedalus Experiment and New Times.

Taking the family on vacation in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Legoland this summer, before spending time with Jen’s family in Vermont.

Annual Gordon reunion with Jennifer’s friends and their families.

Leading an orphan care training together in Kaziba, Democratic Republic of Congo for 32 caregivers.

Jen learning a new job as Communications Specialist for a USAID agriculture project.

Hosting Easter camp for 45 kids and then Christmas camp for 130 kids in our house and watching them all respond to the good news of Jesus.

Starting a sewing school for 11 moms in the neighborhood and working with Noonday Collection to purchase their products upon completion of their training.

Welcoming friends Mary-Catherine Lader, Melanie and Marissa Usakokol, Santiago Sedaca, Steve Beck, Peb Jackson and housemates Celine and Dar to Rwanda.

Facilitating adoptions for two Rwandan children.

Weekly Sunday worship and fellowship times at our home.

Wishing you and yours a wonderful New Year!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Need for Vacation

We are now in our third year of life in Rwanda. After a wonderful time with family and friends on the East Coast, plus a week’s vacation in Amsterdam and Denmark, we were ready to reenter life here. I have never craved vacation as I have until I moved here. As a child, our family rarely took vacations. I’ve tried to place my finger on it and I think I need to face the reality that sometimes life in a cross-cultural situation is just challenging, thus draining and thus we crave some distance.

What are the challenges?

Constantly known as the Muzungu. Even if I’ve sought to learn some Kinyarwandan and have immersed myself in the neighborhood, I am still the muzungu the moment I walk out my gate. “Chocolate, amafaranga (money)” are the constant requests. Even if I have been to the market a thousand times in a year, I am still the outsider having to barter for what I believe should be the fair price and not the price due to the color of my skin. And even though I seek to understand the cultural nuances, I will most surely end up offending someone because I did something that is not acceptable here, but I just hadn't learned that nuance yet.

Constantly expecting something to not go as planned. As I’m currently reading Little House on the Prairie to my five year old, I am struck with the reality that my living situation here is quite comfortable in comparison to life on the American frontier in the late 1800s. Yet, compared to 21st century America, it is not. Water can turn off without any warning. My neighbors often come to share water when the village well is dry. A new road in our neighborhood is a God-send, yet, I am well aware that this will mean a power outage of at least an hour to four hours for every day during construction, which can last weeks. So I never stock the fridge to capacity, even though it is only a third of the size of a standard American fridge, because I don’t want to risk losing food. Even in work, I can plan for two weeks to get invitations out for an event, but when the printer actually runs out of ink and then asks the customer to purchase it for him, that was never in the plan.

Constantly reminded that a little can go a long way. Every time I open my gate and see my neighbor, I am faced with the reality that my Bourbon latte could pay for her son’s three months of education. Do I have a coffee that day or do I help my neighbor? I have to say that I have stopped buying as many coffees out and purchased coffee for my own home. It saves a lot and allows me to spend more on those in my neighborhood, but sometimes I just want to enjoy that iced late. My children have lots of art supplies – there is not much to do here, which is a positive. My children have become very creative at creating their own fun. Yet, there is always the tension of how much do I just keep the supplies and toys for my children and when do I use them to bless other kids in the neighborhood. These are daily decisions that weren’t always as apparent to me in the States even though we lived in an inner-city neighborhood.

These are all tensions for which I am actually grateful as they are forever changing how my family looks at the world. Yet, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes they just get tiring and the shores of Lake Kivu cry out for perspective, beauty and fun. Thankfully, I am married to a man who loves to both work hard and play hard and is committed to seeing as much of the beauty of this country and Continent as is possible.

After two or three days away, I do feel rejuvenated. When I look out into the beauty of Lake Kivu, I stand in awe that I am here in the heart of the continent for such a time as this. When I return home, I have the energy to have tea with the women in my neighborhood and to dream and plan with them regarding their future employment; I shed tears as the house staff for the Karisimbi team pray over us and thank us for treating them like family; and I celebrate with the 12 year old deaf boy, Imanishimwe, as he runs to my house to tell me he is first in his class! It is a good life here. Sometimes I just need perspective.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Trip to Kaziba Orphanage, Congo

Our time in Kaziba was short and meaningful. All of my anxieties about being in Congo seemed to disappear as we drove up the beautiful escarpment leaving behind beautiful Lake Kivu and headed into mountains reminiscent of the Fjords in Norway. It didn’t seem that different from Rwanda, but it was. Somehow I felt safe and secure heading towards the orphanage, yet the reality is it is a lawless region. Vigilante justice is done towards those who commit crimes because the government cannot be trusted. Bribes are the currency of business and so there is no infrastructure, no industry sectors. Except for mining. And mining is lucrative for those at the top, as long as you close your eyes to what happens to those at the bottom. But this is what we heard, not what we saw….what we saw was… (For pictures of our trip please go to -

A home…full of children…a home that a year ago housed children so malnourished that many of the newborns weren’t expected to live. The one year olds did not receive enough Vitamin D through milk and sunlight that their fontanel lobes were not closing. There were two caregivers for 32 children. That is when Holly Mulford met the children and adopted two twin baby girls. Through the generosity of friends and her own personal motivation, she did a formula drive that has ensured each child receives adequate formula every day. She got medical care for kids who needed it. She raised funds so they could hire more staff – they had 4 last year, now there are 17 women. She raised funds to build a wall around the property so that the home would be safe and therefore they built their own garden and are now supplying the orphanage with beans and maize from their own land. They just recently got chickens for eggs and will have a cow soon. Holly has helped facilitate several adoptions from this orphanage as well as she shares the news of these children who lost their mothers in childbirth. (If you are interested in sponsoring a child, please go to

We were there to do a training on building attachment between the caregivers and the children. I structured it around the parable of the Good Shepherd. I believe orphans will receive better care when their caregivers are honored and cared for themselves. So we spent a lot of time holding their hands, looking into their eyes, acknowledging their names, giving them gifts, showing them we see them – truly see them. Yet, there were times when I almost had to look away from their eyes because their eyes were crying out for love and it was almost too much for me to handle. I don’t know their stories. They wouldn’t share what they wrote or drew during our reflection time, but I know God spoke to them. When we talked about how the Good Shepherd walks his sheep through the dark and dangerous places they all began to sway and say, “Amen.” I cannot imagine their dark places. Yet, here they are caring for children and for many of them this is a lifelong commitment. They have been there 17 years, 25 years, 35 years. There are only three orphanages in the whole south Lake Kivu region. There are always new children being brought in. These caregivers are tired, but thanks to the work Holly has launched they said they now have confidence in the work they are doing.

We had them play…a lot…I think that is the best way to learn by experience. This was different for them, but they jumped right into it. Attachment games, sensory building games. Pure joy. We gave them blankets made by their “enemies” – the Rwandans. The irony of it is the manager of Amani in Rwanda lost her husband to Congolese soldiers when Rwanda invaded Congo in 1996. Here she was making 35 blankets for her enemy. But isn’t that how forgiveness happens? One heart decision at a time?

Yet, will what we did be implemented? To move from survival to development is the challenge of any work in a developing country. It is a complete mindset change. As I told the director, if they just spend 15 minutes a day in focused play it will actually save them time in behavior problems for the rest of the day, but he is so overwhelmed by what it takes to clothe, feed and bathe these children that he can’t see the forest through the trees. It is just hard to comprehend. But I believe Mama Lili got it. I believe she will use the toys and methods for discipline we discussed because I sense in her heart that she wants the best for these children.

I could have used a week there I think to really help with the implementation, but that is my struggle here. I have my own children to attend to. Three days was enough. They need their momma. They need their daddy. And when we returned, I held them close.

On a personal note, I struggle. The needs in Congo were overwhelming. The lawlessness prevents any good from surviving here. That is the difference between Congo and Rwanda. For all the critiques of Rwanda’s police state, there is law and order and so civil society can flourish. That does not exist in Congo. Just last week there was a change in regiments in the local Bukavu military base. The new regiment came and robbed the local bank. They shot a local man. Tons of eye witnesses, yet no one comes forward because there is no one to listen. And so my heart feels heavy for this country. My heart feels heavy for the children we saw this weekend. What is their future? I am not sure, but I pray that the caregivers felt cared for and will in turn love on these children.

I saw what I saw and I can't forget it
I heard what I heard and I can't go back
I know what I know and I can't deny it

Something on the road, cut me to the soul

Your pain has changed me
your dream inspires
your face a memory
your hope a fire
your courage asks me what I'm afraid of
(what I am made of)
and what I know of love

we've done what we've done and we can't erase it
we are what we are and it's more than enough
we have what we have but it's no substitution

Something on the road, touched my very soul

I say what I say with no hesitation
I have what I have and I'm giving it up
I do what I do with deep conviction

Something on the road, changed my world

Sara Groves

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reflections on April 7

We have now lived in Rwanda for one and a half years. Last April, I could feel something change in the air as April 7, the anniversary of the genocide, approached. I wasn't sure what to expect. In some ways, life went on....for me....I was fearful of large crowds (and the US Embassy Warden definitely advises staying away from them at this time of the year), so I did not attend the memorial gathering at the national stadium. The streets were quiet. We do not have a television, so we were spared the telecasts reminding people of the atrocities that occurred during those 100 days. I tried to talk with our staff, but I could see they were struggling. So it was quiet. And we prayed. And life went on...for me...

Now I have more Rwandan friends. And I've realized that it is not a question of "Did you lose someone?", but rather "Who did you lose?"

I asked our househelper how she was doing yesterday. She doesn't like to talk about it. She simply said that in the month of April everyone becomes 1994 again. Now she can forgive, but it is still hard.

Just today, as part of my work in doing communications for a USAID project, I was interviewing four farmers up in the northwestern region of Musanze. This region borders both Congo and Uganda. It was encouraging to hear them share how their life has improved since joining a cooperative that is progressing. I asked them what their hopes were for their children now that they are seeing progress in their economic life. I expected to hear the usual hopes of education, success. Instead, what all four said to me in different ways was, "When you have seen and experienced what we went through 17 years ago, all you want for your children is for that to never happen again. You want peace and stability."

I returned home to an email from a friend. We had invited him and his wife to dinner this Saturday. We knew it was the memorial week and said if they'd prefer to postpone until next month, we would completely understand. I have known him for a year. He was actually our attorney for Nathanael's adoption and I have continued to work with him. He shared how he and his wife both lost their parents in the genocide and he lost four of his sisters and brothers as well. Prior to this, what I knew of this man was his incredible heart. He facilitates adoptions because he loves to bring families together. He does free legal aid for orphans on the weekends. Now I know why and my heart broke.

Another friend and colleague shared his story with us. It is one of incredible tragedy. They all are. He is the only survivor. We asked him if he would rather be alone this weekend or would he like to join us for dinner. He said he is usually alone during this memorial, so he would love to be with our family for dinner. How do we honor the family he lost and let him enter into our family at the same time? Lian's response was simple, "I'll teach him how to play Uno! That would be something fun for him."

I met a woman from our church this past weekend. She has written a book called Frida: Chosen to Die, Destined to Live. I read it in a day. I have read so many of these stories. Sometimes I ask myself why I subject myself to them. But in reading them, I find incredible stories of forgiveness and grace amidst incredible evil. I see the hand of God in the midst of a world that denies his existance. I find strength. And in reading their stories, I somehow feel I am honoring the lives of those who were tragically killed in this place I now call home.

Rwanda may feel very far away. But today, I would ask you to just offer a moment of silence for the almost one million people whose beauty and talents this world has lost. May we never, ever see such tragedy again.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Going to Congo - Would you like to help?

On May 20, Dano and I will be traveling three hours west of Bukavo, Congo to facilitate a training for the careproviders of 30 orphan boys and girls ages 0-6, with the majority being under 3. We are seeking to raise $1100 to purchase weighted blankets and sensory toys for these children. A friend of mine from college, Holly Mulford, and her husband, Michael, have lived in Congo for almost five years working with Food for the Hungry. They are the parents of four beautiful children, two of whom are adopted from this orphanage. Holly and Michael are moving back to the States in June and working hard to secure sustainability for this small orphanage.

Background on the orphanage - It is a small orphanage that accepts infants whose mothers' died in birth and fathers' are unable to take care of them. When Holly first arrived there, most of the children were chronically malnourished and all are severely delayed for lack of being held or any attention paid to assisting them with motor skills. Because of lack of space, the orphans are returned to their families (willingly or not) once they reach around the age of five. Holly did a formula campaign and did a simple training to teach the care providers how to mix the formula and the results in the children's health have been incredible.

The director is a wonderful man who is committed to learning better ways of caring for the children and Holly trusts him. Holly asked me to do a training that incorporates elements of attachment therapy and play therapy. While I am not a child psychologist, I have learned a great deal since adopting my three children and have sought to incorporate what I learn into how I interact with orphans here in Rwanda. The theme of my training will be "The Good Shepherd" because my first goal is help the care providers feel loved and cared for and then help train them in some practical ways to encourage attachment and sensory stimulation for the children.

My Request - I am working with a women's coop here in Rwanda, AMANI, to make 30 weighted blankets that are 58x58 cm each. Our daughter, Lian, was first given a weighted blanket by Dr. Karyn Purvis as a way to apply deep pressure, thus stimulating serotonin which helps relax the child. For children who have experienced trauma and have been without physical touch in their first few months, sensory processing disorder is a common result of this lack of touch. These blankets are one way of providing them with physical pressure that doesn't require an adult (and in this case there is one adult for every eight babies). We still bring my daughter's blanket with her if I know we may be in a stressful environment. It immediately calms her. It is also one item that the children can have as their own.

In order to get the needed weight, I have to fill each blanket with 1 kg of polypellets. These are the best material to use, especially in a place where the blankets will need to be handwashed. We cannot get these polypellets here and they are $7 per blanket +tax (cheapest I could find for 1 kg). I have a few friends coming back to the States who are willing to put these in their suitcases, but I need to order them right away. Amani is still giving me an estimated cost of the blankets, but I anticipate the final cost to be close to $30. I will know by next Tuesday what the exact cost is. I want to make 30 blankets.

In addition, I am wanting to buy the following: Wilbarger Therapressure Brushes ($80 for 24 brushes), which again help to stimulate neurotransmitters that release calming chemicals in the children's brains. Again, I have personally seen the benefits of these. I am also wanting to buy a tactile massage ball ($35) for the orphanage and a set of sensory play toys ($80 for 11 toys). And I need to get these sent with friends who are traveling here as soon as possible.

My Total Request: $1100.

Children's Hope Chest has agreed to serve as the umbrella organization for this orphanage until a separate 501c3 is established. We are currently working with them to set up a giving page for this orphanage and it should be up and running early next week.

As I need to order these supplies by next week in order to ensure they arrive in time to Rwanda and in time to make the needed blankets, I am seeking to gauge interest in friends who might be interested in supporting this effort. If you would like to make a donation, please email me directly at or leave a comment saying you want to give. I will email the donation link as soon as the page is created.

Thank you for helping us love on these children in a way that makes a long-term distance to their spiritual and physical well-being.