From Steve Schwager, CEO
For over two decades the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and other development experts have been vocal on their interest in initiating “sustainable development” programs around the world. It is with great pleasure that I write to you about JDC’s very own such project in Rwanda: the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV). On December 31, 2010, JDC turned over complete ownership of ASYV to that organization’s newly created Board of Directors, who are assuming full responsibility for this wonderful residential community for orphaned and vulnerable youth on a mountaintop outside of Kigali.
I have watched this program grow from a dream to a mesmerizing reality in the course of just three short years. And it all started with an innocent question….
Anne Heyman and her husband Seth Merrin (a son of JDC Board member Ed Merrin) sponsor a program at Tufts University called Voices of Moral Conscience. Each year, they bring in a special speaker through the Tufts Hillel who addresses the full campus. In 2007, they featured a Rwandan gentleman who talked about the 1994 genocide and the country’s subsequent development. When Anne Heyman asked about the greatest problem then facing the country, he offered a one word reply: “orphans.” In a country with a population of just over 8 million people, there were a startling 1.2 million children without parents.
Anne Heyman could not let the issue lie. She investigated how the Jewish community cared for our orphans following the Holocaust, and made her way to JDC. I told her of the unique model of Youth Aliyah and recommended she visit Chaim Peri at the Yemin Orde Youth Village near Haifa. Anne did so and continued to investigate whether or not this model, based on the principles of Tikkun Halev (Repair of the Heart) and Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World), could be replicated to help heal Rwanda’s orphaned children. Like the Holocaust orphans, many of these children had suffered trauma and the loss of family during the genocide in 1994, when more than 800,000 innocent Rwandan civilians were murdered.
Considerable research on Anne’s part showed that bringing this model to the heart of Rwanda was both feasible and much desired by the local community. Thus the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village was on its way to becoming a reality. (Agahozo is Kinyarwandan for “the place where tears are dried.”)
JDC helped incubate the idea and worked closely with Anne and her newly developed management team, which oversaw the fundraising, construction, and first years of operation of ASYV. Over $12 million has been raised, helping the project literally develop from conceptual designs to a fully operational village that accepted its third class of 120+ students in mid-December. Our staff has been intimately involved and undyingly committed to the success of ASYV, which earned its place as a special project of JDC’s International Development Program.
The village’s final construction phase is almost complete. We look forward to sending a JDC mission there in 2011, during which time the volunteer housing unit will be formally dedicated to JDC.
In the past year, ASYV has received its own 501c3 status and formed a new Board that has assumed complete fiduciary and management responsibility for the village. Today, as planned from the first day we discussed the project, ASYV is a self-sustaining entity whose success speaks for itself.
After one of his trips to Rwanda in 2009, Will Recant, who served as the senior JDC professional overseeing the project, reported that upon arrival to Rwanda he no longer wrote the name of a hotel in Kigali on his customs forms; he was staying at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwamagana. The customs official studied Will’s form and then said, “Thank you so very much for bringing this special project to our country. I have heard of the village and we are all so very grateful.” In a meeting with the Rwandan and Israeli ambassadors to the United Nations, the bridges of friendship and peace built between the Rwandans, Israelis, and Americans were voiced at the highest levels.
ASYV has brought unique opportunities to JDC, including a partnership with the Liquidnet Corporation. Liquidnet has been deeply committed to the village, both in funding and in the personal involvement of its vast network of employees and their family members who have visited and worked in the village over the past four years.
But the true success of ASYV comes from the 500 kids who will live and learn there in 2011 when the village is at full capacity.
All of us at JDC, particularly Irv and I, are very proud of the many partnerships built through this project. The village is up and running; the children are receiving an education in a unique environment with a vision of “thinking far and seeing far”; and it is a groundbreaking model for education, bringing the very best practices developed in Israel and the West to Rwanda. This is what sustainable development is all about and we wish the new Board of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village continued success as they go forward from strength to strength.