By SHEA STASKOWSKI
Children in Rwanda now know of Sudduth Elementary thanks to school counselor Dawn Swartz.
Recently, Swartz accompanied her daughter, who is an emergency room nurse, and other medical professionals on a medical mission trip to the small African town of Rwanda.
She originally planned to introduce play therapy to as many of the 800 orphans left after the 1994 genocide of more than 800,000 Tutsis tribe living in the community. However, her assistance was needed in the medical clinic where the mission doctors and nurses worked to address the epidemic of cervical cancer, which is the number one cause of death for women in Rwanda.
The clinic was established by the Ndengera Foundation, which is working to rebuild the town that was once devastated by civil war and political unrest. The foundation has also established a primary school and a technical school to teach the orphans and other children of the area.
During her visit, Swartz was amazed at the poverty that surrounded her.
“That’s the cool part about it that poverty and being poor is all relative,” she said. “When we drove from the capital to the small town, we thought these people were poor with dirt roads and no shoes, but then we got to the small village where the clinic was.”
Swartz explained that the people living in the village had only one change of clothes and that any water source is so far away that washing the clothes is a luxury, leaving the people with one change of very dirty clothes. Swartz traveled further into poverty when she and the mission group were taken to the boarder of the Congo where thousands of refugees had fled during the genocide.
“It was horrible,” Swartz said. “There was one shack after another and people living on top of each other in filthy conditions... We thought the people living in the village were poor until we got to the Congo, then we realized [the people in the village] were practically rich compared [to the people in the Congo].”
The mission trip happened to coincide with the anniversary of the genocide, and Swartz learned that the people of Rwanda do not talk about that event at any other time than during the week of remembrance.
“I had to look at girls my daughter’s age and know they must have been 9-years-old during the genocide in Rwanda,” Swartz said. “I heard their stories of forgiveness, and that is the message to bring back that if they can forgive this genocide and live next to people who may have killed their family, then we here in America can certainly forgive anything.”
Also during the mission trip was graduation for the students of the technical school. To help celebrate, Swartz had brought with her 50 pounds of Sudduth Elementary t-shirts to be distributed to the students.
The director of the mission, Rev. Simon Pierre Rwaramba lives by the philosophy of giving wisely, which means that he does not want the students to be given hand outs, but rather, he wants them to earn their gifts.
Though Swartz wanted to give t-shirts to all the children, she recognized the giving wisely philosophy and gave the shirts to the graduating class for their achievement. With so many extra shirts, she was also allowed to give shirts to students in the primary school who had earned good grades in class. The extra shirts were left behind so that the teachers and foundation directors could distribute them during special occasions.
“There is just story after story about how much it means to them to get these t-shirts and it’s hardly anything for us to give,” Swartz said. “It was amazing. It’s like at Christmas time, you feel like giving and receiving is mutual, but I got so much more out of this experience.
Once the students received their t-shirts, they were so excited that their wardrobe had doubled that they prepared a ceremonial dance for Swartz and the other mission goers. Swartz was so moved to know that a simple t-shirt to her was such a treasured gift to the students.
“To see their joy meant way more to me than what they got,” she said. “It was touching that you could bring that much joy with a little t-shirt.”