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After calling the July 21 meeting to order, Kiwanis Club President Willie Gamalero spoke words of praise and congratulations for Madison’s 12 and Under Babe Ruth Baseball Team, and urged everyone’s support for the young team members he had just seen gathered along the Base Street edge of Four Freedoms Park, soliciting donations. Having won the Babe Ruth Baseball State Tournament for their age group, the team will now travel to South Carolina to play regional, said Gamalero, and with a week’s worth of hotel stays and meals, “they do need funds to get up there, and it’s not a cheap trip. If you can, make it by there and drop a couple of bucks in their helmet.”
The team will leave for the trip July 28, at 7 a.m.
Next up was Doug Freer, who introduced one of the guest speakers for the day, Samantha Shivers of the Madison County Health Department.
Shivers will soon be taking up a new responsibility when school starts back, doing a teen outreach program with the ninth graders of Madison County High School. She will be teaching them healthy behaviors, life skills and community service.
It is a program that aims to help teenagers form stronger bonds with the community they live in by teaching them to help others, said Shivers.
Another goal is to reduce teen pregnancies by engaging them in other activities, showing them they can make a difference in the lives of others and empowering them with the skills they need to make their projects come to fruition.
Sometimes the teens will be planning their own projects and ideas, learning how to set goals and then come up with a budget, utilize resources, and develop a plan that will “make a difference.” Other times, they will be helping out with big community projects that are already planned and in place, like Relay 4 Life.
Once the school year starts, when the teens are not planning projects of their own, they will be seeking out other community events. Shivers encouraged everyone present to contact her during the school year if they had a community service event going on that could use a few helping hands.
Following Shivers, Casey Flanagan, a graduate student from Florida State University, majoring in international affairs, took the audience halfway around the world, via a PowerPoint slide presentation, to Rwanda, a tiny East African country about the size of Rhode Island. A largely mountainous country, Rwanda has a mild climate despite being situated close to the equator, and is home to hundreds of tea and coffee plantations. In fact, tea and coffee are its two major exports.
Flanagan had just returned from two months in Rwanda, where he had been working with a group called Global Peace Exchange. GPE is a group that fosters sustainable development in poverty-stricken areas of the world, helping people help themselves.
“It’s a real ‘teach a man to catch a fish’ thing,” said Flanagan. While direct charity does have a place, he said, sometimes it makes more sense to create something that will have a lasting effect.
In 1994, Rwanda – the “Land of a Thousand Hills” with a lush green scenic beauty of mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls rarely equaled anywhere – erupted into massive bloodshed. A long-brewing rivalry between the Hutu and the Tutsi people exploded, resulting in unimaginable violence – the organized, mass killings of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people, or nearly 20% of Rwanda’s population, in about 100 days.
Today, 17 years later, the country is calmer, stabilized, and largely peaceful, but the after-effects of the Rwandan Genocide, as it came to be known, are still felt by the survivors.
There are families still dealing with losses. Genocide orphans, some as young as 17 or 18, are now heads of households that are on their own, with no extended-family support systems. Monuments erected around the town of Kigali record the heartbreaking statements of eyewitnesses who were young children at the time.
In Kigali itself, there is no industry and little means of making a living. With only about $10,000 to work with, the GPE group had decided upon starting a cleaning business in the town; it would require only a modest capital outlay for purchasing a few pieces of equipment (floor scrubbers, pressure washers, etc.) and training about 30 people how to use them.
Since the cleaning business start-up didn’t take nearly as long as the group had thought, they spent the rest of their time working in local schools teaching English, another vital skill needed for economic success in Rwanda; passing an entry exam in English is a requirement for admittance to universities there.
Teaching the English classes proved to be much, much harder than starting up a business from scratch, Flanagan found, because for many Rwandans, English is a third language, after Kinyarwanda, their native tongue, and French. Also, because of the country’s history of violence, many of the children’s education had been interrupted or spotty.
However, at the end of their time in Kigali, the dean of the school told the group he had seen a remarkable improvement in many students’ English skills. Flanagan’s group had even taught them the FSU War Chant.
But the most important thing to Flanagan, is that now 30 people have the opportunity and skills to feed themselves for the rest of their lives; perhaps they will be able to teach others to do the same, as the effect of that initial business project ripples outward and onward into the future. “I get chills just thinking about that sometimes,” he said.
After the presentation, there were a few questions about the country’s economic state (the U.S. dollar is strong there) and how GPE raises the money for its projects (grants, year-round fundraising by the students, and “just plain begging sometimes”).
Just before the meeting adjourned, there was one final question from the audience: “Any chance FSU will beat Florida this year?”
“I think it is almost certain,” Flanagan smiled.