This Is Why I Love My Organization

It’s my birthday today. My dad called and asked, “Is there anything special you would want for your birthday?” I couldn’t think of anything. There is nothing I really want right now. I swear I’m still the same Chloe; I’m not some ultra hippie who went away to Africa for a year to live in a hut with no possessions. Yeah, I’ve changed since being here, but I still enjoy gifts and trips to Europe. I just don’t need anything right now. I told my dad, “Nah, it’s ok, I have everything I need…oh, well if you want to donate to Shooting Touch, that would actually be a perfect birthday gift for me.” We surpassed our health care sponsorship goal for this year of $4,000 earlier this week (incredible) and so I informed my dad of the next project on my mind. Lisanne and I are building a house for one of the women I coach in Nyamirama and I asked if he wanted to help fund the project. My dad didn’t even question my request. He texted back immediately: “Done.” He then told me how proud he is of me and the things I’ve been doing out here. The idea of giving my 24th birthday gift to someone else doesn’t surprise him. Whatever the amount he sends over to help with the project, this could very well be the best birthday gift I’ve ever received. This woman, Vestine, is extremely poor. She is among the poorest in Rwanda, so Shooting Touch can’t even pay for her health insurance. She gets it free from the government. She also received a free cow from the government that she takes care of and profits off of when it gives birth. She is still waiting for that to happen though. She has five adorable kids, three girls and two boys. Her eldest daughter has an infected leg that is twice the size of what it should be and she bandages it up with dirty rags to halt the secretion of liquid. Her second eldest suffers from seizures, thus always has split lips as well as cuts, bumps, and bruises all over her body from constantly falling on the ground. Her youngest three children have rounded bellies, suffering from malnutrition. She lives in a two-room home; one room for eating and sitting and another room for sleeping. Every night when the sun falls, her five children, her husband, and she fit into two twin-size beds in the one bedroom of their mud hut. I’ve brought both of her older kids to the hospital to seek help and have given endless mandazis (Rwandan doughnuts) to her younger three, but it just doesn’t seem like enough for this family. There are a lot of people struggling in this country so you might ask why this specific family stands out to me. I’ll tell you why; regardless of the struggle, Vestine participates in Shooting Touch practice every single day. Sometimes she is late, coming from the hospital or dealing with a crying child, but she finds serenity in the 94 feet of concrete we have out in the east. I’m getting emotional writing this. I wish I could give her everything in the world. I think my birthday present this year from my dad, extra funds from me and Lisanne, and some physical labor will be good for now though. I mentioned it to her the other day and she lit up. She also mentioned that the other 160 women at the court (Yeah! We have that many women in Nyamirama!) would kill her out of jealousy, but laughed as she said this knowing the other women would really be happy for her. Everyone in our Nyamirama Shooting Touch family knows of this woman’s situation and I’m sure they will even help with the building of the house, because that’s what they do here.

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(Vestine’s home, exterior and interior)

So yeah, I’m not over here wearing a loincloth and burning all of my money to live in a tree house, but I’m living simplistically in Rwinkwavu while still possessing a not so simple life back in Boston. Now, I’m merely meshing the two. In my Boston life, I still have the option of receiving a birthday gift (which isn’t really a thing out here in the village), so now living over here, I’m just having my birthday gift passed into other hands. Re-gifting is okay right? C’mon, everyone does it these days.

I love the way I’m seeing the world today. I thought I understood what inequality was after seeing tough parts of Boston and reading articles online about South America and working with refugees in Europe, but I really had no idea what it was until I got here.

I got interviewed the other day from a man working to make a promotional video for Shooting Touch’s annual gala event in September. He asked, “If there was one thing you could tell people that can’t see the whole picture of what Shooting Touch does, but is just able to hear stories and see pictures, what would you tell them?” I calmly told him that for so little, we can do so much. That’s really it. We have the power to do so much. Without being here in Rwanda, it’s difficult to comprehend that just $1000 will build Vestine a home. That 20 minutes of crayons and paper will bring joy to little children for months. That a single pair of donated, used shoes will last a teenager two years. It is crazy the power we have.

With that being said, people have been coming together from all directions to help Shooting Touch this year. From grants and donations, this is what my organization has been able to accomplish in 2017:

-A previous Shooting Touch fellow and now friend of mine, Matt McGinley, initiated a health insurance campaign a year ago. He recognized that the people he loved and worked with were often sick, but most didn’t have health coverage. Without coverage they didn’t go to the hospital or buy medications, leading to severe consequences. Matt insured about 775 people. This year, following in Matt’s footsteps, Jake and I insured 1,889 individuals. We raised over $4,000, set up a mobilization campaign hosting 600+ people to raise awareness of the importance of health insurance, and for weeks and weeks we went around collecting information to fill out forms for health insurance cards. I’m so proud to say, out of the 12 sectors in the eastern province, the four sectors we supplied health insurance to via Shooting Touch are now the top four insured sectors in Eastern Rwanda. A side note, Nyamirama sector was in dead last place last year at this time for individuals with health insurance. They are now in second place. What an amazing feat.

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(Bruno gets health insurance!)

-Shooting Touch holds the only youth basketball league across Rwanda. Our boss Lindsey back in Boston asked for at least 20 youth teams in our league this year. Jake and I gave her 45. This is greatly due to our efforts in increasing participation levels. In 2016, Shooting Touch had 114 boys and 52 girls in the program across five courts. Now, in 2017 we have 325 boys and 285 girls. In 2016 we had U16 and U18 age groups at our practices. This year we added a U13 group and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working with the young ones. Having the opportunity to really influence young lives is one the best feelings ever.

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(U13 practice, Nyamirama)

-Continuing with participation increase, Lisanne Comeau, previous fellow and current in-country program director, started the Shooting Touch women’s program in 2015 and it continued in 2016 with 38 women. Now, in 2017, Jake and I somehow manage to coach 227 women. They compete too! We have 14 women’s teams across three of our courts. At two of our courts the women are being taught English and at one court, the women are learning the local language in written form. At Nyamirama, our women have recognized the community they have amongst each other and are in the midst of starting a cooperative. Each woman pays 200 francs a week (24 cents) to a group bank account and they will put the total savings towards their new cooperative next month.

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(Game day with the women, Nyamirama)

-For the first time ever, Shooting Touch is sending a player to Basketball Without Borders in South Africa. An annual event that gathers the best basketball players across the continent to compete in front of NBA scouts and players has welcomed Thierry, a 16-year old power house from one of Jake’s courts, to show off his talents this year. Our organization held a Gender Based Violence Awareness Tournament in January and invited local national team coaches to watch. Four of our kids, two boys and two girls, got selected to the U16 national teams and Thierry went on in 2017 to impress all of East Africa game after game. Thierry had obvious skills when we met him, but this wouldn’t have been possible without Jake’s added effort and love for the kid. For a month while Thierry was home from boarding school, Jake did individual, morning workouts with him. He traveled to film Thierry’s games to create a highlight tape for him. He sent multiple emails to NBA Africa staff to make this happen and it finally has. Hats off to Jake and Shooting Touch, this is so cool.

-We completed three health units in 2017. There was one unit on malaria prevention and two units on adolescent reproductive health. All of our kids over the age of 14 and all of our women are pre tested on curriculum information, taught curriculum information, and post tested on curriculum information. From pre to post test scores, our malaria unit scores across five courts increased by 20% and our adolescent reproductive health unit increased by 83%! We are testing next week and will know results for our second unit on adolescent reproductive health but regardless, these kids are learning like crazy!

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(Health lesson before sunset, Nyamirama)

-Nyamirama youth have started three clubs that take place on the weekends. I guess five days a week together isn’t enough for this community. We have an anti-HIV club, a debate club, and a talents club. The captain of the talents club asked me to stop practice the other day and give his club members 10 minutes of court time. They put on a skit of what they considered to be a “bad family” with a drunk father and non-supportive mother when it comes to basketball and education and a “good family” with two supportive parents who greeted their kids with hugs and ‘wowed’ when their daughter told them that she had won her basketball game that day. The skit ended with authorities confronting the bad parents and the good parents taking the disregarded kids to practice with their own kids. Kids howled and cheered at the end. This is the kind of performance we encourage and this is what we want our kids to want their households to look like when they are older. The comedy club put on this skit to recruit more kids. Club sizes are growing. The anti-HIV club already holds 117 members.

-In March, Shooting Touch held an International Women’s Day Tournament that consisted of tons of basketball, relay races, a mini carnival put on by board member Alex Gallagher and his students and staff from Nobles Academy, as well as speeches from local community leaders, local hospital workers, board member and WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike, board member and ESPN author and commentator Jackie MacMullen, board member and President of the TD Garden Amy Latimer, and our very own Co-Founder and boss Lindsey Kittredge. We entertained and educated over 1,000 people and we also tested over 400 people for non-communicable diseases that day. Those with unfortunate NCD testing results were later treated by our partnering health center.

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(Kuberimana, Vestine’s youngest child, wearing his best clothes for tournament day.)

-Lisanne, Jake and I often participate in Umuganda (monthly community service to help recover from the 1994 genocide that took place here) and a few months ago, with help from the local library in my home village of Rwinkwavu, we were able to help build a bathroom and kitchen for a family that had lost loved ones in the Rwandan genocide.

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(Umuganda was messy.)

-We hired five new coaches this year. That means Shooting Touch is providing five people that didn’t have a job a monthly salary now. Not only have these five coaches helped to vastly improve this program, but also they have found a real love for the work they do. “This is the best Shooting Touch has ever been.” “Lisanne has changed my life by giving me a chance with this job.” “I love working with you and these kids and want to become a head coach some day.” “I never want to stop working with you.” These are just some of the things I hear our coaches say.

-Shooting Touch put up lights at two of our five courts this year, allowing kids to focus on school work during the day and basketball in the late afternoon and into the evening. Playing later in the day also insures a safer playing environment as the mid-day sun can be tough on both the players and the coaches. The first night we turned on those lights the kids went crazy. Most of them don’t even have electricity at their home. It’s the new hang out spot after sunset and it’s comforting knowing these kids are playing around the court rather than getting into trouble elsewhere.

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(Women get to play for two hours during the day.  Kids come at night when the lights come on.)

On a last note, a more personal note, I’m sponsoring a kid to go to school here. His name is Muhoza Patrick and he’s one of the nicest, sweetest kids I know. At the beginning of my work in Rwanda, he would stick around the court in Nyamirama all day, helping me with whatever I needed help with. I asked him one day why he never left this place. He had an obvious love for basketball but he spent way more time at the court than anyone else. “Do you go to school?” It seemed silly to ask because he spoke fairly good English and seemed well put together, but he lowered his head and said no. I asked why. He said money. Muhoza’s family had been paying for him to go to school but times got hard and they couldn’t continue to send him. Muhoza now attends school every day and then returns to the court as our new junior coach at Nyamirama. Muhoza has a brighter smile on his face than ever before. Lisanne sponsors two kids, Dio and Solange, at that same school. Jake is planning on sponsoring Gideon, a young boy from his court in Kayonza, when the time comes to send him off. I work with amazing people for an amazing organization. With just over a month left of my time here as a fellow in Rwanda, it feels great to look back on all that we’ve accomplished together and seems necessary to share with all of you. Thanks for letting me show off my program a bit.

With a whole lot of pride and fatigue,
Chloe

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(Sunset, Rwinkwavu)

The Importance of Family

At Shooting Touch, we like to talk about family. My first email from Lindsey after earning my Rwanda BHC Fellowship concluded with “Welcome to the Shooting Touch Family.” Although her final salutation felt admittedly tacky at the time (I feel like EVERYONE says welcome to the family these days, regardless of if you’ve actually joined someone’s family or you’ve signed up for a credit card company’s reward program – “Welcome to the MasterCard Premiere Family”) the next weeks and now months since receiving that email have proven me wrong.

 

Before getting into the meat of this post, please follow the link here:

Link to Video

OR scroll to the end of the post and watch the video I’ve embedded and the short description that precedes it. Thanks in advance.

 

People tend to go above and beyond to make sure that our family members are happy. On one of my first official days of work for Shooting Touch, before Bob Hurley Camp in West Roxbury, MA, Chloe and I had never even met or spoken. At the time I was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Brookline, and Chloe came and picked me up before working camp and had iced coffee waiting for me when she rolled up to my buddy’s apartment. After a red-eye flight into Boston from the West Coast and in a 90-degree summer day in Boston, that was the best coffee I’ve ever had.

 

With that, the tone for the rest of mine and Chloe’s relationship was set as was my relationship with everyone else from Shooting Touch. My family increased in size that day.

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Little did I know, the rest of the Shooting Touch family would uphold the standard that Chloe had established that day on the way to Hurley Camp. I have stories for just about everyone I’ve come into contact with because of Shooting Touch and how considerate and helpful they’ve all been. Lisanne Comeau directing me from Logan Airport to my hotel even though she’s not from Boston. Kevin Kettl playing the role of mentor/older brother throughout my fellowship. Remy Ndiaye talking me off a ledge when I was struggling with the best way to be a leader in Kayonza. Lindsey (and Justin) being, well, Lindsey and Justin, the passionate, inspiring, semi-crazy entrepreneurial leaders that our organization deserves. Everyone has been there to support me and my personal/professional development throughout my tenure here in Rwanda. To all of you, I love you and appreciate everything that you’ve done for me until now. On each of the aforementioned and countless other occasions, my family grew again.

 

When I arrived in Rwanda, my family grew yet again. By about 12 coaches, 600 kids, and a handful of teammates from my “professional” team, UGB. I have anecdotes for most of them too. As I sit here writing, I’ve received a text from Cyusa Jean Luc (aka Jamba), UGB’s President, asking, “What’s up son?” A handful of kids at the Rukara and Kayonza courts either refer to me as “Papa Mandazi” or “Big Brother.” Christian Nijyimbere and the other coaches who I live with and interact with on a daily basis in Kayonza and Rukara have gone above the call to make me feel welcome and integrated into the communities I work in. Even when my own family came all the way from the US, they were welcomed with open arms into the communities that Shooting Touch impacts. Each family member on separate occasions has told me how impressed and touched they were by the people during their visit to Rwanda. We work in such a wonderful place here, even if some days are more difficult than others (but that’s life I suppose).

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Post practice family meeting in Kayonza to discuss healthcare enrollment.

I often struggle with when to wear my work hat and when not to, the lines between the two often blur because we’re all so close. Like any family, we have our ups and downs. Some days we love and appreciate each other a ton, other days we want nothing to do with each other. But always, our commitment to the work we’re doing and the satisfaction we receive from seeing our other family members’ success(es) reminds us to put aside our differences and remember why we are here. I know I push my coaches beyond their comfort zones almost every day. Lisanne and Chloe both push me to be a better version of myself, even when it isn’t easy to deliver that constructive criticism. Thank you.

 

I have to take a minute as well to shout-out Board Members Jackie MacMullan, Amy Latimer, and Chiney Ogwumike. It was an absolute pleasure hosting you during March, I am so glad to have met each of you. Before our board arrived in Rwanda, Lisanne, Chloe, and I were extremely nervous about meeting you, and by the end of the visit it felt like I’d known each of you my entire life.

 

I think my readers can see where I’m going with all this. As cynical as I may have been when I first received that email from Linds on my first day about “joining the Shooting Touch family” the people who I’ve met along the way have proven my cynicism wrong. From the top down, this is an incredible organization comprised of exceptional people, whether in Boston or Rwanda.

 

To Matt Barr and Jordan Dillard, the two incoming fellows (congrats on the fellowship by the way), I’ve got some news for you. Once you join this organization, you’re in it for life. Your initiation consists of a really long flight from Boston to Rwanda, followed by riding a shaky moto to a basketball court next to a banana plantation where you’ll be ransacked by hundreds of dirty kids who want your love and affection, some of whom won’t be wearing pants. Giddy up cowboy (and cowgirl).

 

In all seriousness though, Matt, Jordan, I think I’m speaking for myself and everyone else in the organization when I say we’re here for you. I’d even go so far as to say we want to hear from you and help you whenever possible. I always will be looking to hear from you – one thing I’ve learned on my journey to Rwanda so far is that nothing makes me feel happier and more valued than when someone sincerely comes to me for help, so fire away. We’re all here for you and want to see you succeed from the executive team down. Welcome to the Shooting Touch family.

 

 

Creating Healthy Families in Rwanda

In keeping with the theme of family, there are a lot of my family members out here in Rwanda’s Eastern province that need help. This month, Chloe and I will be enrolling some of the neediest Shooting Touch program participants in the Rwandan government’s health insurance program. These are people who, since Matt McGinley and Lisanne launched the Shooting Touch/Mutuelle partnership last year, have seen their lives immeasurably changed for the better. Lower medical costs for our family here has led to fewer missed days of school and work and holistic improvement of the livelihoods in the communities we’ve become a part of.

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Above: The 2016 Gala squad, minus a few, looking good. We look forward to adding Jordan and Matt to next years squad pic.

Watch the video in the link – the testimonials we’ve collected are pretty powerful and Chloe is looking realllll good with that baby on her arm. For $4, you can provide an individual with health insurance for the next 12 months. It could be the most impactful $4 you spend all year. Here’s the link to donate:  DONATE 

On Growth and Goals

Blog #5 – On Growth and Goals by Jake Mendys

My oh my. The past two months have absolutely FLOWN by. I’m being up front with you, I’ll attempt to be concise, however this blog is going to be a bit lengthy. I’ve split it into two different sections, one on personal growth, and one on the power of reaching goals.

REACHING A GOAL

One of my goals for my Rwandan journey was to place a Rwandese player on the invite list for NBA Africa’s Basketball Without Borders event. I really can’t believe it as I type it, but it is with great pleasure that I announce Shooting Touch has taken the proper steps to placing its first player into the 2017 BWB signature event in South Africa.

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If all goes according to plan, this upcoming August, Nkundwa Thierry, a 16-year-old SG who I have the pleasure of coaching in Kayonza, will journey with Chloe and I to Johannesburg for the Basketball Without Borders youth event. He will have an opportunity to compete against 49 of the other most talented players on the African continent in front of NBA players, coaches, and school scouts from the United States. Kita Thierry, a rep from NBA Africa at our tournament this past week, extended the invitation to our Thierry after watching him play in a scrimmage against our visitors from Nobles and in the Secondary All-Star Game over the weekend.

Thierry and I spent hours and hours together this past summer (seasons are flipped down here compared to the US) working out to improve his basketball skills and conditioning before the primary boys had morning practices. What impressed me most about Thierry was how humble and hungry he was to learn more about hoops. I have a hard enough time getting kids to show up for one practice late in the afternoon, let alone Thierry coming for two-a-days that started at the crack of dawn. Additional thanks are in order to all of the previous fellows who laid the groundwork to get Thierry to the point he was at when I first met him this past November.

In the theme of striving for more that I will dive into in part 2 of this entry, now that I’ve realized my initial goal of placing a player into the BWB event, it’s time to raise the bar. Call me crazy, but I believe that Thierry has the potential to make in impact at the collegiate level in a league like the ACC (I might be biased, but it’s hands down the best league in college). But before he can get there, he NEEDS to get to a high school in the United States where he can improve himself as both a student and an athlete.

After our time together, I have no shame in saying that I love the kid like I love my own younger brother who’s also in high school. Having the level of maturity and poise on the floor that he possesses at 16, especially after only having played basketball for the past 3 years, leaves my jaw hanging. I often tell those who will listen that I believe he’s the best U18 player in Rwanda, and maybe in East Africa.  I could ramble on and on about what a special kid he is, but the point is that this young man has incredible potential. How am I, and how is Shooting Touch as an organization, going to do exactly what we espouse as our mission? Namely, educate and empower him to realize his potential.

I expressed at dinner the other night, to an audience that included ST Executive Director Lindsey Kittredge as well as visiting ST Board Members Jackie MacMullan and Amy Latimer, that in the next 365 days, my personal goal was to bring Thierry to the United States to finish high school and gain maximum collegiate exposure. The clock is ticking.

Turning Weakness Into Strength

February and March 2017 have been among the two most challenging of my life. I will admit it – I have made a lot of mistakes over the past 6-7 weeks. Before diving to deeply into those, I must first make a small revelation about myself (a self-defense of sorts). I am a big picture guy. I think best when I am designing broad, strategic plans, rather than minute details. As both of my coworkers would tell you, our job requires incredible attention to detail. Needless to say, I’ve struggled greatly with that aspect of my work over here.

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(Above: A massive health lesson taking place at Nyamirama court in our new curriculum unit on Gender Equality)

For the first few weeks of February we were beginning delivery of our newest curriculum. I felt like I was forgetting everything we needed for our lessons. On Monday it would be flip charts for my coworkers. On Tuesday I would forget to make sure that the print shop had not messed up when printing out surveys and pre-tests. On Thursday, I forgot to bring new basketballs after old ones had worn out. Our jobs were moving a mile a minute and I was not doing a good job of keeping up.

Lisanne and I had a number of chats, playful at first, but with each mistake the tone of those conversations became increasingly serious. I will not lie – I was wayyyyy down in the dumps at points after some of those conversations, sometimes to the point of question not only my decision to come to Rwanda, but also questioning myself and my ability to do my job. THAT is a dark place, let me tell you. Everyone always tells me that thinking in that way can be self-destructive, but I never realized just how corrosive those thoughts are until I myself was in that place. To say I was psychologically suffering is an understatement. There was a big part of me that wanted to call it quits and find a way to just go home.

I haven’t told this to Lisanne or Chloe or anyone else here really. I always try to exude poise and confidence, sometimes to the point of coming off as conceited. Hanging out with a bunch of kids who reinforce this herculean image makes recognizing and accepting failure that much more difficult.

In my mind, there were only two places to go from there.

Option 1: Continue to wallow and make excuses for myself and my behavior. Spiral out of control and descend deeper into selfish self-pity.

Option 2: Be an adult and own my mistakes for what they are. Allow myself to be vulnerable and admit my own shortcomings. Then strive for something better. To quote my man Tupac “For every dark night, there is a brighter day.” In each failure I experience, there is an opportunity to turn the situation around.

I preach to my coaches all the time that I am going to be hard on them because I want them to realize their full potential(s). We give them a lot of responsibility so that they can grow into the mantle we’ve given them. This is not because any of us muzungus enjoys being a hardliner, but rather because we care about these people and want them to grow.

This time, I need to practice what I preach. If I want to grow and attain the lofty aspirations I have for myself, then I need to turn my weaknesses into strengths. When I was in college, I was deathly afraid of presentations and public speaking. I had one professor (Shout-out to Dr. Sharon Cannon) who always graded the heck out of my papers and oral assignments. I would turn an assignment in or give a presentation in class and every time I would get it back with a B+. I would meet with her and try to understand why I was earning the same grade despite a noticeable improvement in my works quality.

In her endearing southern drawl, Dr. Cannon’s reply was something that stuck with me. “There is no doubt you’re improving. But Jake, as time goes on in your life, the bar doesn’t remain the same. As your abilities improve, so do the responsibilities bestowed on you.” I thought back to that meeting in her office overlooking the business school’s quad as I mentally grappled with the mistakes I had made in my small house near the Kayonza market. When Dr. Cannon met with me that day, I decided to become the best presenter I could be, and ultimately earned the highest marks in a later course where grades were entirely contingent on cohesive, powerful presentations to real business clients.

For the past 3 weeks or so, I’ve made a full-on commitment to improving my attention to detail. As I go through each day, I am writing down (and crossing items off of) my to-do list. I made sure to complete the majority of my International Women’s Day Tournament and board visit responsibilities well in advance of their deadlines. Busses were booked two weeks in advance, key stakeholders around the Eastern Province were aware of the tournament with plenty of notice, and teams were created 10 days before the event. AND I was managing those responsibilities in addition to my daily practice and lesson planning responsibilities. Things for the tournament weren’t flawless, however, I think anyone who was present for the event would agree that Chloe, Lisanne, myself, and our coaches, put on a damn good day.

A special shout-out is in order for Chloe for being unafraid to give me exactly the feedback I needed in the days leading up to our tournament, both positive and constructive. We are certainly going to be a better, more cohesive team because of your courage and strength to always be honest with me.

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(Pictured: my 14 and 17 year old brothers have their first coaching experience in Rukara)

And because I was able to get so much done in advance, I was able to fully relax and enjoy the time I spent with my family for about 4 days the week before Lindsey and our Board arrived. It was an incredible time with them exploring Rwanda, we even got a chance to see the famous mountain gorillas!

I also want to take a chance to shout out my family for all of their hard work fundraising shoes and basketballs for our kids here in the Eastern province. Because of Charlie’s hard work at Durham Academy, we distributed over 200 pairs of shoes in the week leading up to our March 18th tournament in Nyamirama. Talk about a special experience. I couldn’t be more proud of Charlie, who is only 17 and a junior in high school, for taking such ownership of the fundraising process and also for jumping in headfirst to his visit to Rwanda. Proud, proud older brother moment. Mom, Dad, Charlie, LJ, thank all of you for coming halfway around the world to spend time with me during your spring breaks, I hope you had a great experience as both guest coaches and as tourists in this wonderful country.

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I’ve written enough for now. I hope you’ve made it this far. Thank you to everyone who educates and inspires me every day as I trek through the (cant believe I’m writing this) final stretch of my Rwandan hoops journey, especially everyone back in the United States. I miss you all so much and love you all more than you know. I can’t wait to get off that plane and see all of you again in North Carolina, Oregon, California, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, and beyond.

Hoops for Health

I was walking back from practice with Bosco the other day; he’s one of our best young players from Rwinkwavu. We were dancing and laughing and mimicking his immaculate crossover from practice that had left his defender baffled earlier that morning. Bosco had a great practice and he knew it. He marched home with unquestionable confidence, leading a pack of seven or so kids that looked up to his personality and athletic ability. As we reached the top of the hill, just before parting ways, a man from the village began yelling at Bosco. I couldn’t understand a word, but I could understand emotion, and Bosco deflated almost instantly. His eyebrows flattened, his lips pursed, his shoulders slouched. This man was wagging his finger, talking a mile a minute and I just stood, perplexed with the situation. The man then turned to me: “He needs school!” he spoke in English, “If no school, he will be a thief! Everyone in Rwinkwavu with no school is a thief!”

“Ok, ok.” I blurted out.

Bosco was already on his way home with his head down and his crossover long forgotten.

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(Bosco, Rwinkwavu)

Bosco started school three days later. I got him his uniform and supplies and told him to attend afternoon practice only after he had finished all of his studies. So that’s what he did. But that’s not why I’m telling you this. I’m telling you this because what that man said to me that day is significant. Thievery aside, an uneducated community is a bad community. Lack of education is the root of poverty. Poverty leads to a decline in health. That’s just one side of it. Lack of education additionally leads to inequality and furthermore, mistreatment amongst individuals within that community. That man, a friend of Bosco’s family, was stern with Bosco that day and really dampened the mood of the morning. Regardless, I’m thankful for that moment because it opened my eyes to something major. Shooting Touch is here for times like this; we don’t just bounce balls, we educate. As focused as I am on teaching our young players to dribble with their eyes up, deeper problems persist out east and it’s my job to respond.

I’ve received multiple requests from blog followers back home asking to explain more about the educational side of Shooting Touch, so let me dive in.

I interact with roughly 350 Shooting Touch members weekly. Aside from basketball practice, our boys, girls, and women at my courts receive two health lessons from our curriculum per week. We also teach our women beginner English four times a week. On top of that, once a week, our coaches hold gender-segregated youth talks, allowing our kids to express their problems and concerns regarding relationships, puberty, home life, etc. And on top of that, we periodically have local doctors hold focus groups so that our women can talk about their problems and express their concerns. We take notes, we plan change.

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(U13 practice, Nyamirama)

We are currently in the middle of our fifth health unit: “Adolescent Reproductive Health”. We want our boys and girls to feel comfortable with who they are and who they are becoming and we also want our women to reiterate these feelings to their children. This means teaching concepts such as eliminating gender norms, identifying characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, portraying puberty as a harmless and normal chapter of life, encouraging protective sex, explaining the difference between sex and gender, and giving women and girls the confidence that they deserve and need. This unit is fun, sex education can get silly, but it also exposes fundamental information that these kids and women have never heard before. Numerous aspects go in to making a community a healthy community. Using basketball as a vehicle for education is a fun and effective way to integrate these aspects into the communities of Eastern Rwanda.

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(Health Lesson: Who do you want to be?)

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(Health Lesson: Gender Equality)

This education is so vital. I can’t express it enough. Out east, selfless and humanitarian actions and interactions are ubiquitous, however, these communities are unhealthy in so many ways. Here are some numbers (relating to unit five) to back it up.

In just my home village of Rwinkwavu, 52% of the women in our program have been victims of abuse, physically, verbally, or emotionally. 45% of these women admitted they don’t feel comfortable telling a man “no” when he approaches them wanting sex. 73% of the girls in our program don’t believe they can do anything a boy can do. Again, this is why we are here. There is work to be done.

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(Health Lesson: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Relationships)

Mama Ruth (pictured below) is a part of the Rwinkwavu women’s team. She owns and runs a shop in the village, cultivates her family’s crops daily, is responsible for two children, cooks and cleans for her family, and makes it to practice every Tuesday and Thursday at 4pm. Her husband thinks Shooting Touch is a waste of time. He thinks basketball is a waste of time for women. He let her know that on days that she wants to go to practice, he won’t help out around the house or in the fields. Mama Ruth is HIV positive and gets tired easily due to the medicine she is on; nevertheless, she accepts her husband’s ultimatum and attends our practices and health lessons. She is a strong and intelligent woman and I’m humbled to know her. This is what we need more of. Women ignoring gender norms. Women making their own decisions for themselves. Women being strong. So we have to start with our young girls and tell them that this is how it should be, and we have to let our young boys know that this is how it’s going to be, and we have to make sure our women go home and teach their young boys and girls this knowledge. Just thinking about the possible effect I can have on this village and others in the east gives me the chills. I, along with my Shooting Touch team, can really make a long-lasting impact if this information is taught correctly and successfully gets through to the kids.

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(Mama Ruth, Rwinkwavu)

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(Mama Ruth, Rwinkwavu)

We know we have issues when the men in an eastern village (in which one of our courts is situated) actually believe that it hasn’t rained in two months because the women there are playing basketball. It never rains in December and January; it’s the dry season then. This is a prime example of how lack of education can lead to an unhealthy society. There are a lot of theories floating in the air because of nonexistent education and so this is why we are here. We want to help. We want to introduce them to new, useful ideas.

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(Health Lesson: Puberty Role Play)

I’m thrilled Bosco is in school. I know it will help him in life, but aside from math and history, Shooting Touch provides what schools can’t always give, and that’s knowledge concerning humanity for the sake of personal and societal well-being.  Not only am I proud to be teaching 13 year-olds the difference between sex and gender but I’m proud to say they truly understand the difference between the two.

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(Health Lesson: Sex vs. Gender)

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(Health Lesson: Our Changing Bodies)

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(Women review the menstrual cycle, Nyamirama)

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(Girls see tampons for the first time, Nyamirama)

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(Distribution of stomach worm pill, Nyamirama)

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(Preparing for our International Women’s Day Tournament, Rwinkwavu)

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(Doctors from the local hospital come to speak to our women, Rwinkwavu)

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(Peace out from Chingie, Rwinkwavu)

 

 

 

 

Bouncing a Ball on the Blacktop

By Jake Mendys – Shooting Touch Blog #4

ST BLOG #4

In my previous post, I mentioned how a lot of mine and Chloe’s readers here can’t truly realize the impact that they’re having over here in Rwanda. For those who attended the 2016 Gala in Dorchester, one of the most powerful moments (I thought) was hearing the incredible passion that Nobles School Athletic Director Alex Gallagher spoke with about his visit to Eastern Rwanda last year for Matt and Jazz’s International Women’s Day Tournament. But more on that/Alex later.

Firstly, Chloe and I spent some time putting together some videos illustrating our daily lives here in Rwinkwavu and Kayonza (respectively). You can find those videos here and here, as well as embedded at the end of this blog. Take a minute, you’re already taking a few minutes off at work or wherever you are right now to read this post, and watch the videos, I promise you’ll be in a good mood for the rest of the day.

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Above: The woman of Rukara celebrating their first trophy

Two weekends ago, Chloe and I put on an incredibly successful 3v3 tournament to end the kids’ summer holiday season, with a special focus on combatting gender-based and domestic violence in the communities Shooting Touch operates in. The most remarkable result was that our women’s program in Rukara, after just 12 weeks of practice (read as 12 weeks ever playing basketball), won the women’s bracket.

A lot of hard work went into making the tournament possible and I learned a lot about how important preparation and flexibility are when it comes to putting on a live event. I had some previous experience managing live events while putting on the Dozen Doughnut Dash when I was still in college and from my work with Nike’s Track and Field Sports Marketing crew in Oregon. I felt like the entire day of the event, I was being pulled in a million different directions and couldn’t even hear myself think. To my man Paul Moser, I’m starting to more fully understand part of the headache you experienced at all of our track meets and hospitality setups, finding a half-decent caterer for a reasonable price is an absolute nightmare man.

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Picture: Kids from Kayonza painting their cheering section banner with a headline about preventing domestic violence

I’ll run you guys through the hard statistics. 300 spectators. More than 100 players across our women’s, girl’s, and boy’s programs, spanning from ages 10-35+. 200 pamphlets detailing the dangers of and solutions to domestic violence. 4 (you read that correctly) players (2 boys, 2 girls) recruited from our program onto the Rwanda U16 National Basketball Team. And those are just the measurable, quantitative outputs of the tournament. Accolades aside, the tournament was satisfying because outside of some planning help from Lisanne, a lot of the execution was on myself and Chloe, and we rose to the occasion (see tangible outputs of the tournament listed above.)

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Picture: Two players, Thierry and Junior, show off their new shoes after our pre-tournament shoe distribution in Kayonza

Some may find this surprising, but a lot of the kids and women we work with have never been further than a few miles from their homes. The chance to travel just 45 minutes down the road is the opportunity of a lifetime. More than the travel, everyone relished the opportunity to show off their skills in front of a captive audience. I can’t speak for Chloe, but I was also harping on the fact that national team coaches would be in attendance, and the kids rose to the occasion and the games were extremely fun to watch. Between bragging rights, chances to impress coaches and local pros, and their desire to compete, I certainly thought “Mission Accomplished” after the event.

In reflecting on the tournament, I’ve come to realize (and appreciate) how privileged I am to come from the place that I do (always a Great Day To Be A Tar Heel) and to have had the numerous opportunities that led me here to Kayonza. For a handful of the kids Chloe and I work with, the chance to play basketball at an elite level or successfully finishing secondary school and attending university is a possibility. I’m starting to see that, for the remaining majority, a tournament like this one, or even the chance to compete for pride in a friendly match like we had in December, can be the highlights of some of our players’ lives.

One of the coaches here who I have become close with, Coach Christian in Kayonza, made the observation that “Shooting Touch’s courts are so important because so many of the kids in Rwanda like basketball at an early age, but cannot play until secondary because there aren’t courts.” That brings me back the passion and the impact I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this blog. Alex Gallagher was nearly in tears up on that stage because of the impact his visit here had, seeing and appreciating first-hand the results of our donors’ financial generosity, of our partners and our friends’ willingness to donate uniforms, sneakers, basketballs, nets, rims, and the like so that some kids might just have the opportunity to bounce a ball on the blacktop.

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Picture: Myself and Overall Tournament MVP Thierry Nkundwa after Kayonza boys won the Secondary bracket.

Christian’s point brings me back to October of last year, when I completed the monthly umuganda (community service) with a handful of my coaches and players in Rukara sector. After community service, a group of men from the village and I played a friendly match with a visiting university on the court Shooting Touch built there. After we won the game (obviously) the elation on the faces of my teammates were incredible. To me, we had just won a glorified pick-up game on a random Saturday afternoon out, miles away from the nearest paved road. For my teammates, they had just won Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

I was floored by their reactions, as well as my relative indifference to their overjoy. I can’t remember who said it before we left the US, but someone in the ST family said, “You’re about to become local celebrities, everyone is watching and everything you do matters.”

That same unadulterated happiness is what I saw on the faces of my players that weekend in January during our tournament. And again, from my perspective, aside from a few players who stood to impress national team coaches, the stakes of the tournament  were fairly low. But they aren’t. These matches and tournaments, they are creating memories to last a lifetime for some of our players. I don’t want to be so overly presumptuous as to say we’ve changed every kids’ life, but we sure are making a lasting impact on more than just a few, just by giving them the opportunity to play basketball and compete with their peers.

One of the greatest presidents in US history (personal opinion) once remarked “Athletic sports, if followed properly, and not elevated into a fetish, are admirable for developing character, besides bestowing on the participants an invaluable fund of health and strength.” (Theodore Roosevelt 1890) His remark is the essence of why Shooting Touch is so important here in Rwanda. For some participants, they simply are able forget about the extenuating circumstances of their challenging rural lives and revel in the joy of having something fun and constructive to do. Others embrace the game and strive to become highly-skilled. It’s incredible to behold, either way. When you say it back to yourself “so that some kids can bounce a ball on the blacktop” could seem like a pretty silly sentence, but the more than 400 youth whose lives Chloe, Lisanne, and I change on a daily and weekly basis, would beg to differ.

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Until next time, stay classy Boston, Chapel Hill, and everywhere else in between. Next time I’ll be talking about the kids going back to school, my first gear distribution, and preparing for the big boss to visit in March.

Observations & Interactions

Excerpts from a small blue journal:

October 6, 2016 – 10:30pm – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“The man who builds our courts, Emmy, came to visit tonight after practice in the village. He took his phone out of his pocket so we could exchange numbers and immediately, 25 kids surrounded him to stare at the bright screen.”

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October 10, 2016 – 9:45am – Kigali, Rwanda

“It’s a cool thing, making a statement without having the intentions to do so. Inspiring others without trying. Changing mindsets by just living. Me, Lisanne, and her dog jogged through town today. Kids stared. Men stared. Women stared. An atypical act in this society; a female decides to exercise. A simple morning routine has the power to show women they can, show men that women can, and show the future generation kids that women are more than just mothers and cooks and cleaners. We push ourselves up the hill and I have a smile on my face knowing that this underlying message exists as two strong women and a dog carry on with their morning routine.”

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October 14, 2016 – 12:30pm – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“It sort of hit me most, the fact that I’m actually in Africa, as I zipped through the low clouds on the back of a moto the other night, tree covered hills all around me, listening to ‘Where Is My Mind’ by the Pixies. How apropos…”

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October 18, 2016 – 10:45pm – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“I cooked dinner for a family of 10 tonight. I ran home after practice, cut veggies and potatoes, made a tomato sauce, and boiled a huge pot of pasta. The Shooting Touch player whose family I was cooking for patiently waited at the end of my driveway in the dark as I finished up so he could show me to his home. We walked the food up the hill together. His home was dark inside, so I turned my phone’s flashlight on. I couldn’t believe their faces when I took the cover off the food; it was like I just revealed a million bucks. Claps, smiles, wide eyes. ‘Wow!’ So much joy. I can’t believe this mother has to cook for nine kids every night. She thanked me over and over, told me I was a good cook, and invited me for porridge the next morning.”

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October 24, 2016 – 4:30pm – Kigali, Rwanda

“Avocados cost six cents here.”

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October 30, 2016 – 1:45pm – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“This place is gorgeous, there is no doubt about that. I wonder if these impoverished kids stop to look and appreciate the beauty of their country around them.”

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October 31, 2016 – 6:30pm – Nyamirama, Rwanda

“We visited a school in the North yesterday. One of the kids pulled me aside on the court to ask if there is something special that is put into the shoes of NBA players that allows them to dunk. ‘Like springs?’ I asked. ‘Yes, springs!’ I laughed. ‘No way man!’ ‘Ok so do they have special powers?’ ‘You think Michael Jordan has spe-‘ ‘Yes!’”

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November 6, 2016 – 3:45pm – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“I was expressing my disappointment regarding a rained out practice to someone in the village the other day. They told me to not be upset. ‘The rain is a blessing’ she explained. They need it for the crops. They need it to survive. I will never complain about the rain again.”

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November 29, 2016 – 4:15pm – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“Little Shema gets to the free throw line to shoot two foul shots. He airballs the first shot. When he gets the ball back from the referee to shoot his second shot, he passes it back, takes a step off the line, does two pushups, and asks for the ball back. He clanks the next shot off the backboard. What a goofy kid.”

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December 2, 2016 – 9:00am – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“Last year I ate a Thanksgiving meal with a bunch of Israelis, a Canadian, a few Texans, a Philly girl, and a Cali girl in Tel Aviv, Israel. Last weekend I ate a Thanksgiving meal in Kigali with a few Belgians, a Hollander, a South African, and a few fellow Americans in Kigali, Rwanda. I wonder where and with whom my next Thanksgiving meal will be.”

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December 4, 2016 – 1:00pm – Kigali, Rwanda

“I visited an art studio in the city yesterday. After having talked for some time to one of the artists working there, he brought me into his studio out back to show me a piece he was working on. It was a white canvas with a decorated African mask attached to it. Cutting through the mask was a metal machete. Below the mask was a metal bullet. The canvas was splattered in red paint. This country hasn’t seen disaster like that from its past in a long time, but the memories still linger.”

 

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December 11, 2016 – 11:00am – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“I sit on a wooden school bench in a one-room school house. One of my players invited me to attend church with him a few weeks ago, so I go on Sundays when I’m around the village and don’t travel to the city. I have a friend sit next to me and translate. A girl stands up in front of the group this Sunday to thank God for her parents working their marriage out after separating when she was younger. Others go up to speak and everyone says really serious things regarding family and health. My Shooting Touch player goes up and thanks God for allowing him to win his game the previous day. Everyone in the church turns to look at me and laugh. I gave him the thumbs up.”

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December 19, 2016 – 12:00pm – Kabarondo, Rwanda

“As I was leaving practice today, I heard a commotion from across the road. There was a circle surrounding two of our little kids, both no taller than my waistline. Nshimye and Rodrick. It was difficult to see the two, but as I approached I saw Nshimye’s right fist make perfect contact with Rodrick’s right cheek. I ran towards them and the circle of kids that was once encouraging the brawl, was now working to pull the kids off each other. With dirt and blood and angry faces, the two kids looked up at me.   Everyone started pointing fingers. After figuring it all out, with the help of Patrick (Rwinkwavu’s head coach), the two little boys hugged and everyone went their separate ways.”

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December 20, 2016 – 8:45am – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“One of our women from the Nyamirama court came up to me to tell me that one of our other women from the court had lost her 26-year old son to malaria last week. I was wondering why I hadn’t seen her at practice for a few days. She always showed up to play. I found out where she lived, left practice with one of our other coaches, and went to give my condolences. She smiled as I hugged her but the atmosphere was incredibly somber. The son left behind not only his family, but his wife, pregnant with her soon to be first child. The next day I brought them food and money to cover the hospital bill. I wonder if she will find comfort in Shooting Touch and come back to practice…”

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January 3, 2017 – 8:50pm – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“Every time a plane flies over the court or a huge truck drives by the main road, the kids stop playing and stare and point and make ‘Oo’s’ and ‘ahh’s’. This makes sense; these planes and trucks symbolize the greater world that’s out there that these kids only get to see in movies and read about in books and dream about at night. But never in my life have I seen kids stare so intently at a lawn mower like I did the other day. These kids are so impressed by machines that are so every day to me. I was walking home from practice when I witnessed the crowd of kids watching the lawn mower go back and forth over the lawn belonging to the founder of the hospital in Rwinkwavu. They stopped to watch the lawn mower- their show- and I stopped to watch their amazed faces- my show.”

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January 6, 2017 – 2:00pm – Kayonza, Rwanda

“‘Chloe, do you know that you’re my role model in basketball?’ –Brendah (16 years old, Nyamirama).”

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January 11, 2017 – 1:00pm – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“We gave one of our players, Chance, a ride home from practice today. I watched him as the car set in motion, wide eyes, big smile, clenched fists atop his knees. Like a little kid on a roller coaster (Chance is one of our older kids in the program by the way). Excited, high-pitched sounds came from his closed mouth. I just watched him from the front seat. When we reached his home, he confusingly looked for ways to open the door. He pressed the handle, then tried using his foot to push, then gave up. We helped him and he hopped out of the car, gave Lisanne and me a high five, and then galloped through his yard and into his house.”

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January 15, 2017 – 10:15am – Kigali, Rwanda

“After having made teams at the Rwinkwavu court for all ages (with the intent of these teams being permanent), one of my junior coaches told me we had to change the women’s teams. I told him I have been recording wins and losses and we were already a month or so into play and it would be difficult to change the teams up now. He explained that a lot of our women are HIV+ and they get tired easily. They went to him to tell him to ask me if they could make their own teams and even out the stamina levels. This never crossed my mind, but it’s reality here. I try to know my players on a deeper level, off the court, as more than just basketball players, but some things take time. Now I know.”

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January 18, 2017 –7:30am – Rwinkwavu, Rwanda

“Talked to Troy on the phone this morning. He told me the keys to happiness are friendship and sunshine. He was messing with me but these two things are actually working for me here…My wise little brother often reminds me how simple life can be.”

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January 24, 2017 – 2:30pm – Nyamirama, Rwanda

“The woman from Nyamirama that lost her son to Malaria a few weeks back just recently returned to practice. She is smiling too. Glad our program could help with that.”

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The Starfish Theory

I tripped over a big rock the other night while walking through my village. I was staring up at the stars. “You like stars. You always looking up!” My friend Hans found it funny that the sky amazes me and my undivided attention was focused upward for most of our walk home considering that life doesn’t really go on up there. Today, less than 20% of Americans can see the Milky Way due to light pollution. In my home village of Rwinkwavu, you can see the Milky Way on every clear night.

There seems to be an infinite amount of differences between here and home (the Milky Way is looking beautiful, by the way, for those Bostonians who haven’t seen it lately) and I think I’m pretty quick to notice most of these differences. For instance, small monkeys bravely sit on the side of busy roads. Women walk around town wearing fabrics containing every color of the rainbow while balancing woven baskets atop their heads. Children have family duties like taking their cow for a walk or fetching water from the village pump. At 11am, the local radio unfittingly plays fast-paced reggae music designed for late night clubbing. And, a BIG one, the Snickers bars taste drastically different in Rwanda, in a bad way that is.

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(Another difference…market options are sparse around here.)

Despite these evident distinctions from what I’m accustomed to, I’ve noticed a major parallel between here and home: kids greatly enjoy activity and attention. In fact, regardless of where you are in this world, kids undeniably love these two things.

With this being said, I possess a bothersome thought: there exists a massive number of children in need all around the world, but how do I choose whom to aid when inexhaustible service is needed and only so much service can be done? Shouldn’t we help within our own country first? With millions of children in the slums of India, hundreds of thousands of refugee kids from the Middle East repositioned in Europe, and villages of Rwandese youth all around me every single day, I’m torn. Even back at home, inequality within the schooling systems threatens our nation’s future right before my eyes.

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(“Coach, take photo.”)

After pondering my unsettling thoughts for some time, I came up with this: if you’re out and about helping, no matter where you are, you’re doing something right. Right? I can’t just sit back and waste time assessing who needs my help more, this hungry kid or that hungry kid, I just have to get out and act. I have to simply help how I can. And so I’m doing that and it just happens to be here, supplying activity and giving attention to the kids out in Eastern Rwanda. I know my mom wishes I chose some place closer to do this, but the opportunity came up and I took it. You would think, having my mindset in this manner, I’m doing ok emotionally, but even with these efforts, it’s stressful at times when I finish a day’s work and look at the big picture once again. I want to help so many, but I can only help so much. I try to think about the “starfish theory” when living in this world, and I remind my co-workers here about it often.

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(In need of a few more basketballs…)

The “starfish theory” goes somewhere along the lines of this: A boy is walking along the ocean and sees a beach on which thousands of starfish are washed up upon the shore. The boy notices an old man walking, crouching down every once in a while to pick up a starfish and toss it back into the ocean. The boy asks the man why he is doing this and the man tells him that the sun is out and the tide is going in, and if he doesn’t do this, they will die. The boy explains to the old man that there are miles and miles of beach and he can’t possibly save them all, not even 10% of these starfish if he spent all day on the shore. The boy tells him it won’t make any difference at all. The old man calmly bends down, picks up another starfish, and tosses it into the ocean. “It made a difference for that one” the man claims.

I love this, and I try to think of this theory whenever my thoughts are spinning because of the overwhelming effort required to aid the greatest daily struggles of this world. Again, knowing this, I still find myself upset every now and then. But that’s because I’m sensitive (I blame my parents for giving me a blankie to sleep with every night when I was younger).

Anyway, if you want to help me in helping one more starfish, contact me. It costs $4 a year for health insurance for one person in Rwanda. Starbucks coffee isn’t that great – we could take a day off from it…yeah?

 

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(I’m doing just fine without coffee. African tea, 24 cents, pictured above.)

I’ll leave you with this: I think I’m starting to mean something to these kids here. You would think that was a guarantee, you know, spending six hours a day on the court with them, smiling, laughing, dancing. However, it’s a little more complex than you may think. I’ll be real with you, being white in this society comes with its struggles. I eat three meals a day, sleep in a nice bed, have running water, and my electricity is always working. But like my co-worker Jake so nicely put it: “Sometimes I feel like I’m just a walking bank here. It’s so frustrating.” You can have an unbelievable moment with a kid and then he or she will go ahead and ask for a pair of shoes. It makes it feel like the 10 minutes of laughter, the multiple high fives, the big smiles, like those were all fake. What I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t fake, it’s real, and it’s just the philosophy here for kids to ask foreigners for money. Some of my little neighbors can’t speak a lick of English except for one request: “Give me money.” These kids are out here trying to survive. I don’t blame them for looking at me and seeing money. My clothes are clean, my water bottle is full, my phone can access the Internet, and my fingers wear rings. I have to take a step back and realize that this call for help is what these kids are brought up to ask and when someone like me or Jake comes into play, they will surely ask it. That sentimental moment I had with the kid was real, I just have to try and ignore this dispiriting demand that comes with it.

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(Dio Donne (left) and Obama (right) displaying some brotherly love.)

This is a really hard thing to do, and even though these seesaw interactions continue to occur, when I tell you I feel like I am starting to mean something to these kids here, I really feel like it’s happening. Redirecting my mindset away from the money pleas and focusing it on making a positive impact in these kids’ lives, I see these kids actually starting to reciprocate my care for them.

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(Satisfied with her reflection through the phone screen.)

I was running (struggling) up a huge hill in town the other day and one of our younger players leaps from his front yard to join me. When we reach the top of the hill, he says bye and runs back down to return home. I help these kids, they help me. They might still ask for money and shoes and food, but what they really want is friendship. The only problem is, what they need in life is that money, those shoes, and that food. If we could survive off friendship, these kids would take that over any food or health insurance or shelter. But want is different than need, very different. Again, these kids are out here trying to survive and I’m just out here trying to distract them from the difficulty of survival. I’m not a money bank, but my attitude towards helping, well, that bank never runs out.

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(Friends, Rwinkwavu.)

When one of the young basketball players tells me he hasn’t eaten in two days, my sadness that follows is immense. When I tell him I want him to come over to my home to eat a meal and he responds that it is not he that comes first, but rather his baby sister that has also not eaten in two days that comes first, my sadness becomes immeasurable.

I helped that boy and his family that day. The starfish effect…I have to focus on the starfish effect. As for the next day and the day after that, I hope somebody else crouches down to throw back that starfish into the water while Jake and I are focused on helping the next one.

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Thanks for reading.

-Chloe