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Rwanda Trip About Developing Empathy, First Lady Says

Sept. 16, 2008 — First lady Cecile deJongh, who shepherded a group of Virgin Island students to Rwanda this summer to help in orphanages there, says the trip was as much about "our own kids" as it was about the orphans.
"I wanted to expose them to how other children live, children less fortunate than they are," deJongh told the Rotary Sunrise of St. Thomas Tuesday morning. "I wanted them to develop a sense of empathy."
As it turned out, deJongh had nothing to worry about. It was an immediate love affair. The 11 students, mostly from Ivannna Eudora Kean High School, took to the young Rwandans immediately, and the African children responded in kind with big grins, hugs and dances.
"The bonding was spontaneous — it was all smiles all the time," deJongh said with her own characteristic wide smile. "Everywhere we went, the orphans laughed and welcomed us, and everywhere we went, we just cried. We couldn't get over the love pouring out of these children who didn't even know us, who were happy living in such spare conditions."
The Rwandan children were orphaned because of an epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the wake of the 1994 genocide in the country.
DeJongh gave a thumbnail view of how the project evolved. Early this year a group of IEK students approached photography teacher Barbara Young about actually meeting Vicky, a Rwandan student for whom they had raised funds last December to send Vicky to school. Young heard of the Rwanda student through her friend and fellow photographer, Sonya Melescu, who spent time in Rwanda last year.
After thinking it over, they decided it would be better to go to see Vicky. Young called her friend deJongh and asked for help funding the trip. DeJongh was immediately taken with the idea, and said she would help on one condition: "That I can go, too." DeJongh, her daughter, Rene, and Source Publisher Shaun A. Pennington got together and spent the next few months organizing and raising money for the adventure.
They left July 18 and returned Aug. 4, all of them much richer for the experience. DeJongh and Pennington described the trip as "life-changing," and the students readily agreed.
Tuesday, deJongh brought the experience to life with slides — photograph after photograph of the children looking at the camera, sometimes in wonder, sometimes shy, sometimes happy and dancing, looks that words can't describe.
"They love to have their pictures taken," deJongh says, "and to be able to see the pictures right after."
The group visited different orphanages, where they painted, built playground equipment, gardened and sometimes helped with a meal. IEK artist Sheree Miller painted a huge fanciful mural at one school, including a sun with sunglasses, elephants and giraffes.
"Unlike our orphanages, the ones in Rwanda are centers only for the day," deJongh says, "The children live in foster homes. The idea is for them to be a part of society, not separate from it."
There are strong similarities between Rwandan and V.I. culture, tradition and language, deJongh says. Rwanda is a peaceful country, probably the most peaceful in Africa, she says.
"We could learn from them," the first lady said. "After the genocide there is no more Hutu and Tutsi, the two tribal divisions that turned so violently on one another. Everyone in Rwanda is Rwandan. This is integral to their peace. In fact, if you identify yourself as anything other than Rwanda, you get fined."
With a laugh she said, "We should try that here when we say we're 'Crucian' or 'Thomian.' I don't think it would work, though."
The group met the first lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, at the president's office.
"She talked about Rwanda and how far the country had come since the genocide," deJongh said. "We told her about our activities and she thanked us. She is very gracious, very tall. We gave her a book on the V.I. and a doll made in the territory, wearing a Kean High School uniform."
The V.I. group also took a couple of days' breather.
"We went to see the silverback gorillas, and then we went on a safari," deJongh said. "The gorillas were incredible, wonderful, but we met baboons on the safari and they were awful! They run at you and steal your food."
The first lady will return to Rwanda next year with a youth delegation from more islands. She hopes to make it an annual project.
The Source and the first lady posted travel journals from the trip almost daily. You can find them on the Source by entering "Rwanda" in the Search Section box and at deJongh's website.
DeJongh will share her adventures with the Rotary Club of St. Croix Wednesday at 5:30 at the Fort Christian Brew Pub in Christiansted.
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.

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Sept. 16, 2008 -- First lady Cecile deJongh, who shepherded a group of Virgin Island students to Rwanda this summer to help in orphanages there, says the trip was as much about "our own kids" as it was about the orphans.
"I wanted to expose them to how other children live, children less fortunate than they are," deJongh told the Rotary Sunrise of St. Thomas Tuesday morning. "I wanted them to develop a sense of empathy."
As it turned out, deJongh had nothing to worry about. It was an immediate love affair. The 11 students, mostly from Ivannna Eudora Kean High School, took to the young Rwandans immediately, and the African children responded in kind with big grins, hugs and dances.
"The bonding was spontaneous -- it was all smiles all the time," deJongh said with her own characteristic wide smile. "Everywhere we went, the orphans laughed and welcomed us, and everywhere we went, we just cried. We couldn't get over the love pouring out of these children who didn't even know us, who were happy living in such spare conditions."
The Rwandan children were orphaned because of an epidemic of HIV/AIDS in the wake of the 1994 genocide in the country.
DeJongh gave a thumbnail view of how the project evolved. Early this year a group of IEK students approached photography teacher Barbara Young about actually meeting Vicky, a Rwandan student for whom they had raised funds last December to send Vicky to school. Young heard of the Rwanda student through her friend and fellow photographer, Sonya Melescu, who spent time in Rwanda last year.
After thinking it over, they decided it would be better to go to see Vicky. Young called her friend deJongh and asked for help funding the trip. DeJongh was immediately taken with the idea, and said she would help on one condition: "That I can go, too." DeJongh, her daughter, Rene, and Source Publisher Shaun A. Pennington got together and spent the next few months organizing and raising money for the adventure.
They left July 18 and returned Aug. 4, all of them much richer for the experience. DeJongh and Pennington described the trip as "life-changing," and the students readily agreed.
Tuesday, deJongh brought the experience to life with slides -- photograph after photograph of the children looking at the camera, sometimes in wonder, sometimes shy, sometimes happy and dancing, looks that words can't describe.
"They love to have their pictures taken," deJongh says, "and to be able to see the pictures right after."
The group visited different orphanages, where they painted, built playground equipment, gardened and sometimes helped with a meal. IEK artist Sheree Miller painted a huge fanciful mural at one school, including a sun with sunglasses, elephants and giraffes.
"Unlike our orphanages, the ones in Rwanda are centers only for the day," deJongh says, "The children live in foster homes. The idea is for them to be a part of society, not separate from it."
There are strong similarities between Rwandan and V.I. culture, tradition and language, deJongh says. Rwanda is a peaceful country, probably the most peaceful in Africa, she says.
"We could learn from them," the first lady said. "After the genocide there is no more Hutu and Tutsi, the two tribal divisions that turned so violently on one another. Everyone in Rwanda is Rwandan. This is integral to their peace. In fact, if you identify yourself as anything other than Rwanda, you get fined."
With a laugh she said, "We should try that here when we say we're 'Crucian' or 'Thomian.' I don't think it would work, though."
The group met the first lady of Rwanda, Jeannette Kagame, at the president's office.
"She talked about Rwanda and how far the country had come since the genocide," deJongh said. "We told her about our activities and she thanked us. She is very gracious, very tall. We gave her a book on the V.I. and a doll made in the territory, wearing a Kean High School uniform."
The V.I. group also took a couple of days' breather.
"We went to see the silverback gorillas, and then we went on a safari," deJongh said. "The gorillas were incredible, wonderful, but we met baboons on the safari and they were awful! They run at you and steal your food."
The first lady will return to Rwanda next year with a youth delegation from more islands. She hopes to make it an annual project.
The Source and the first lady posted travel journals from the trip almost daily. You can find them on the Source by entering "Rwanda" in the Search Section box and at deJongh's website.
DeJongh will share her adventures with the Rotary Club of St. Croix Wednesday at 5:30 at the Fort Christian Brew Pub in Christiansted.
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.