Friday, January 20, 2012

When are you going back to Rwanda and who is Harv?

These are the two questions I am getting asked a lot lately.

The first question is easy. I’ll be back in April, then August, then December this year. I have two signed up for April. Who else is in???

Re: Harvin. His decision to come to Rwanda happened so quickly that I realized we never quite explained on the blog. Harv and I worked together at Campbell Mithun for many years. We were never in the same dept and our roles didn’t have us overlapping much so we both knew each other very little.

Harvin left CM late in 2011 and was enjoying some much-needed time off before deciding how best to plot the next stage in his career. During one of his networking meetings a former colleague of ours (Tim Hawley) suggested he step away from everything and do a service project in December. Another mutual friend suggested he talk to me about my life’s work in Rwanda. He came to my annual Christmas fund raiser for New Hope Homes and spent an hour talking to Roxie Goertz whose son Liles came to Rwanda about a year ago. As he was leaving my home he asked me to give him 2 mins on what our needs are….ie do we need anything built, painted etc etc? I said “We simply need good people, especially men, to come and love our kids. It’s especially important for our boys to get exposure to men who can serve as role models.” I told him that some people just don’t understand how important it is to just be with our kids, to love them, to let them read to us, to teach them. To hold them in their arms. The simply gifts that matter so much.

I was supposed to be leaving for Rwanda in few days so it was just a brief chat and we agreed to chat sometime in the near future about this work or other ideas where he could serve.

My trip got delayed due to work. Thus a few weeks later I left him a message that I was leaving in a week and he was welcome to join me if he wanted.

He got his mom to watch is dog and called back with “I’m in”.

Thus began the odyssey. He offered to bring two of the supply bags as his luggage and simply use carry on for himself. I was to arrive 2 days before him and he would stay 5 days after I left.

So there you have it. 2 people who didn’t really know each other. A very limited ‘brief’ of what he should expect. Me.. exhausted from a 4 month pitch and hoping Harvin’s addition to the team would be a good one vs sucking the last ounce of my limited reserve from me.

To make a long story short. Harvin was exactly what the kids needed in EVERY dimension. His connection with them was very real. It was powerful. It blew me away. I have never seen anyone so quickly and fully fall in love with these kids and immediately sense what they each needed.

On his 2nd day in Rwanda. I looked at him and said “you know you have a gift for working with kids…right?” The look on his face was priceless…. And his honest reply “No, I didn’t”….completely oblivious to the gift.

After each volunteer wraps their session at New Hope Homes, I like to write a tribute to them for their family and friends to see. Harvin got a 5 page letter from me. Below are some of the highlights.

Harvin, here are the beautiful gifts you gave our kids.


29 kids all wanting your time is intense. It’s hard to have one on your back, two on your knees one rubbing your head …And of course 2-3 yelling across the way “Harvin, Harvin…you see, you see”. You found a way to never let that intensity misfire.

One of my favorite moments was watching you sit patiently with Fabiola and Anna as they did their Lego project. Encouraging them every step of the way that they could do it. They could really do it. Never to give up. To keep believing they could do it. Celebrating every step along the way with a chest pump and peaceout sign.


You understood the simple gift of how a child feels when someone has their arms wrapped around them. It feels safe. It feels warm. It feels goooooooood. It is the simple act that gave so many of our kids a moment to really truly feel that. The sweetest memory for me was Nshimye asleep in your arms on the ground in front of the 2nd home with the 2 aunties just soaking it up. Jaki just kept looking at the situation with tears in her eyes as she saw the simplicity of this gift of love. The safety. The peace. The serenity. The love. That image is seared in my mind as so much of who you are. Exhausted from giving everything and sleeping so little, yet easing a boy who needed a little extra love into your arms and allowing him the beautiful gift of slumbering there. I would guess that when he has a hard time sleeping at night he may try to find that memory and the safety of your embrace to lull himself back to sleep.


You showed Isaac that strong men, real men, good men, men who love, men who know who they are, men who feel deeply ….do indeed shed tears. Those tears show pain, those tears help get the pain out…or at least attempt to get some of the pain out.

I asked him yesterday if he had ever seen a man cry or if you were the first. He said you were the first. That was a life long gift you gave him. Permission to feel deeply. To let the deep cuts, the wounds be felt and then to rise to the surface and pour out when they need to. That is a lasting gift. A real blessing.


I assumed the girls would like you and find you charming, but I didn’t expect that you would touch them they way you did. They craved to be in your arms. They craved to ensure that you saw them when they did something well from school to yoga and everything in between. I think it also gave them a feeling about how good it is to have a good man wrap his arms around them and some day they will hopefully be able to discern what it feels like to have a good man vs a bad man wrap their arms around them and will choose to look for a good man.


The favorite lesson that we taught was about respect. In your silliness you broke through and helped them really understand. It gave us the meaningful tools so that we could reference the word throughout the week and they immediately understood. Sure that was fun for you (good cop!), but you had the gift and sense of creativity to ensure I didn’t turn it in to a forgettable lesson.


Clearly the story of Isaac is seared into your heart and soul for a lifetime. So, I’ll let that one live there and stay there in your heart.

Rather, I’ll focus on others. First, sitting forehead to forehead with Fabiola and just being present to her. She is a tough little soul trying to sort her way through the world from a tough tomboy to preteen and all the complexities that come with all of it. Of course this is on top of being a total orphan. I sat hiding behind the safety of the lens of my camera and just breathed in what is the gift of you with her. You gave her time. Not just a little lesson in how to breathe, but to really feel you. You didn’t rush it. You were just there. Present. To know you genuinely care. You just held her head on both sides and pressed your foreheads together with an attempt to help take the calm and peace that was in your heart and try to transfer it to her. A man who had the strength to give a little girl the gentle spirit of your love. Your endless effort to get her to look up so she could see the love in your eyes and feel it rather than the constant gaze to the floor that is often our Fabiola. You took the time with her to ultimately ‘fight’…in this case it was ease her into trying the yoga pose with you. And now, you have a beautiful frog drawing by her to re-live that moment.

Sitting with 4 crying boys the night after I left said it all. Being present. Being safe. The part that you might not have understood is that many of those tears are advance tears knowing that today would be their last day with you. While they might not have the best sense of time, they understand the cascading effect of me leaving, you leaving and school starting.


From running to yoga, you taught them the joy and strength that comes from taking take of your body. Keeping it fit, strengthening it and of course, in yoga finding some inner peace and strength. Of course you made each of them fun – turning running into tasting coffee and yoga into gymnastics, but through it, you have given two additional life lessons. Yes, life lessons.

To Harv’s Family and Friends that have shaped his life journey…. on behalf of the kids of New Hope Homes, we thank you for the blessings of this man what you helped create.

To those of you who haven't read the post that preceded this one, please will help explain some of the context for his tribute. His other guest entry will give you more insights too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Guest Blog Post from Harvin.

Time got away from both Donna and I. Between spending time trying to work on much needed projects and getting everything ready for the older kids to go back to school, while also trying to cram as much time just being with the school age kids before they left, the blog fell by the wayside. True confessions, I am back in the States now, experiencing a simultaneous combination of personal inspiration from my time at New Hope Homes and sadness and sense of loss at my leaving. But I wanted to share this post trip anyway. There were a few days I had the joy/responsibility of being alone with the kids, as Donna had to return before me. This is the email I penned to Donna the night of her departure, my first night alone. It is really a tribute to this amazing woman, as I was able to experience first hand the love and sense of loss these precious children felt at her departure, as well as my own sense of void without her presence and strength. .

--------------- Dear Donna, .

Well I've already failed you since it's 10:17 and the boys are just bathing and brushing their teeth now. In my defense the uncles and aunties didn't leave till 830p to take them to dinner and I was too distracted by my 3rd crying preteen boy of the day to notice the time. .

We arrived back in the van to everyone waiting for Yoga. I took two rugs from the classroom out onto the patio under the near full moon, and there we did our dedication to Donna, to everything she means to all of us. Sure it began with a lot of giggles, but by the first warrior pose they were reasonably quiet, and as we all held our hands high and gazed at the moon, I spoke of what a strong warrior you are for them. Raising money to feed and clothe them, traveling back and forth across the globe to be with them, how lucky they were to have such a strong warrior guiding and providing and praying for them. By the end they were actually quiet (well mostly) but we managed to all lay there under the moonlight for nearly two minutes, silent and reflective and honoring the woman you are. .

Then of course the giggles started.... The girls went inside and the boys, Sande, Innocent, Isaac, Lionel, and I stayed out on the carpet and practiced. .

We practiced Warrior 1, and talked about the strength of that pose, how when you're legs are rooted in the earth and your arms and eyes are raised to the heavens you are balanced and strong. We practiced Warrior 2 and learned how looking over your fingertips is like looking at your future, rooted in the strength of the base you learned in Warrior 1. And as we launched into, and fell out of Warrior 3, we spoke of how a strong warrior launches himself into challenges and his future. How even if he falls out of it, that’s ok. He can launch again and regain balance and success. And then we talked about the hardest and most important warrior pose, 'Humble Warrior'. As they bowed over their front leg and tried to extend their little clasps hands to the sky behind them, we talked about how as men we must learn to be humble, to the women in our lives, to our brothers and sisters, and to others. How some of us are better or stronger at some things, yet to be really good or really strong is not enough and only through being humble are we true warriors and men. .

I have to say, I even inspired myself with that speech.... This crazy idea to teach them Yoga has provided some really awesome teaching moments. .

So as we 'men' sat there under the moonlight the conversation turned to my age. I told them I was 44, that most men in my country live to be 80, so I was half way through my life, but that was ok because there was still so much I was looking forward to doing. I told them their lives had barely begun, that as much as they had experienced, they still had so much to live. That how when I was their age, I barely knew where Africa was, let alone think I would ever travel there. That they already knew so much more than I did at their age, both good and bad. Maybe it was because of my own emotional state but here's where it got a little surreal. I talked about what this trip has meant to me, how it, they, have helped me to understand myself better, who I was, and who I wanted to be. How I was apprehensive about the next part of my life, how I most likely would have to move away from everyone I loved to find a job, but how grateful I was that this happened so that I could have met them. How I was trying to be excited about my future, and yet how some days I am incredibly sad or scared or both, just like them. .

And then I described Lionel, his future, how someday he would have a grand opening in a London gallery for his art work that people loved and wanted to pay him for, and how we would look at his paintings someday and laugh, remembering him drawing pictures in that old school house. .

And how someday when Sande finally figured out soccer wasn't the only sport around, he'd take up running seriously, win the gold medal in the Olympics, and when asked why he loved running so much he'd tell people he learned it by chasing this crazy old Muzungo around the streets of Kigali. .

And how someday no matter where in the world you went you could find a friend of Innocent, because his easy laughter made everyone want to be near him and know him as he travelled the world. .

And how Isaac would be president someday, maybe of a country or a business, and how his people or his employees would love him because he was not only a great leader, but a humble one. And how someday when they watched him address the UN, they would roll their eyes at how important people thought he was when they knew he was 'just Isaac'. But they would also be secretly proud of their brother and best friend. .

It was awesome to see these boys who have known so little to actually dream big dreams. Even Sande just sat there still, staring at me the whole time, completely devoid of at that air of indifference he wears so often. .

And then someone came out, and Lionel got distracted and started laughing and getting loud and distracting, and then Grace, Rose, Kayatesi, and Alice came out and laid down practically exhausted, then Manuel (the ‘Uncle’ and night watchman) to tell me it was late and he was taking the kids down to the lower house for dinner..... .

And then I noticed Sande was now laying on his side, oblivious to the commotion, silently crying into his arm. .

I managed to get Lionel and Isaac to take one of the rugs back to the school room, and tell everyone else that Sande and I would finish taking the other one in and meet them down at the lower house, and verbally hustle Prince and Nshimiye out of the house to catch up with the others at the gate, and, and, and..... .

And Sande just lay on his side silently crying into his arm the whole time. .

Once everyone finally left I curled up behind Sande on the ground and just held him and rubbed his back. After a very long time he sat up and openly cried in front of me, perhaps the first time he has ever cried in front of another man. Needless to say I cried too. After awhile I got up and got him some Kleenex, and both of us some water. He cried for a very long time. .

And then Manuel returned and I asked him to join us, so he just laid down next to us in silent support as Sande finished exorcising the last of his sadness. Manuel is such a good man. I witnessed him this week running with the kids and I, so careful with their safety. I witnessed him tonight just silently supporting a broken child. He really is one of the good ones. .

And then it got really fun. I asked Sande if we should teach Manuel some yoga. We taught him the warrior poses, just staring at the night sky together. And Manuel held a Headstand for nearly 5 minutes without effort, but kept falling out of Crow. And he can hold Plank forever, impressively beating Sande’s best effort. Yet as strong as he is, he's completely inflexible, so I put him in Pigeon pose and he screamed/laughed in pain. And it felt so good to hear Sande laughing along. .

The other boys returned and I went into Donna mode, teeth brushing and herding them towards the bath. As I was herding I found Sande inside and he looked at me with a weird look at told me, and I quote, 'You are like Bible Man'. I asked him who Bible Man was and he rifled through the DVD's and found one entitled Bible Man. Now it will come as no surprise to you I'm just not that familiar with Christian cartoon characters, but near as I can tell from the DVD cover art, Bible Man seems to be some Christian super hero in tights with 3 kid side kicks battling evil. Considering the reverence with which Sande said it I took it as a very sincere compliment and managed not to chuckle at the irony. .

With the boys now in progress of bathing, I grabbed my computer and began to type this email to you, exhausted but happy, thinking that I had survived and even managed to do some good. I was thrilled to break through with Sande and feeling rather good about myself when I hear the sobs. .

And here’s where I break. I found Prince stripped down to only his underwear, the last one to bathe, alone and sobbing uncontrollably by the bucket of water. It is a visual I will never forget, that of such a small child so vulnerable and so alone. I wrapped him in my sweatshirt and held him there for 40 minutes until his crying subsided enough to get him moving. I asked him if he wanted to finish bathing in the morning and he said 'jes'. I tried to gather his clothes from the ones remaining there with him just saying 'jes' and 'noh' to my inquiries, some of the few simple English expressions he knows. I led him to bed where he couldn't find his PJ top, so I went to my room and grabbed one of my Tshirts, dressed him in it, told him it was mine and so I would be with him all night. And then I just had to leave and go outside. .

So here I sit eating left over pizza from Abby’s pizza making with the kids this afternoon, tears in my eyes, listening to Diana Krall on my iPhone and wishing my friend Donna was hear to process with. I have just spent the last 45 minutes holding Prince's naked body in my sweatshirt by the bathing station as he sobbed uncontrollably. Four sobbing boys in one day is a lot for anyone to take. I feel so helpless. I must say crying nonstop for 10 minutes by myself while sitting alone at a Home for orphaned children in Kigali is not something I ever imaged I'd be doing in my life. .

Donna, I wrote this because I needed to talk to someone and you are not here. Truthfully I do not know if I'll even send it to you, or if I decide to, when I will be able to and when you'll get it. I also don't know if I can do this, whatever this is. I feel so committed to these kids, especially the boys, and yet the future looks so daunting and I feel so weak, helpless, and completely out of my element. How you managed this by yourself for so long is completely beyond my comprehension. But maybe a little sunlight tomorrow and hopefully a little sleep tonight, maybe the combination will give me some new energy tomorrow. .

Knowing you, I imagine you haven’t read this with completely dry eyes, but just in case they are, in the interest of payback for randomly calling me three Sunday's ago and putting me on this path to tears, let me just say this.... .

I have never seen so many with so little love someone so much. You touch these kids in ways that can't be described, and although it may pain you to hear from a 1st hand witness about the extreme sadness these kids feel at your departure, that is only the mirrored emotion to the unbelievable joy they feel in you're presence. You are a remarkable woman. These kids are incredibly blessed to have you in their lives and I feel incredibly lucky to call you my friend. Thank you for everything you do for them, and everything you have now done for me. .