My journey to becoming more empathic & generous

The original kids in the street child program during my first visit in 2018

May 9, 2024 | by Matt Anderson

By nature, I wasn’t born an empathetic person.  It takes effort to put myself in the shoes of other people.  I wasn’t as bad as Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory, for those who know the sitcom.  But sometimes loved ones had to point out to me when I was being insensitive.  And while I grew up knowing the virtue of generosity, I never really understood that it could be personally rewarding.  Then I met Alphonsine and learned about her story and I started to change.  It didn’t take long after we started dating for me realize that I found a keeper. 

One time we had a conversation while we were dating about supporting family.  I held the opinion that you teach a man to fish rather than give him a fish as the saying goes.  She told me a story about how helpless she felt after being orphaned during the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.  Her dad appeared to her in a dream in a white robe and smiling.  She promised him that she would take care of his 3 surviving kids like he would.  When she awoke, she felt reassured and at peace.  She was only 13 years old at the time.  It started to sink in that some people are helpless or come from an extreme disadvantage. 

Alphonsine’s 2 sisters in the middle and brother on the right

My first trip to Rwanda was in November 2018.  This was the first time I met her younger siblings who were already adults.  They were throwing an engagement party for us.  They were all close and laughed a lot, not what I imagined after hearing the heart wrenching story she told me about how they barely survived the genocide as children and endured mistreatment from their foster family afterwards.  Alphonsine calls them her kids and they respect her like a mother, even though they are close friends.  With her help (and the hand of their Maker) they had finished their degrees and started careers and businesses.

When I visited Alphonsine’s charity for the first time, they were still in the original building.  There were 15-20 younger children playing and laughing like they didn’t have a care in the world.  I couldn’t communicate with most of them, but some spoke broken English.  As soon as I started kicking a soccer ball around with them, they lit up and let me join their group.  When the staff assembled them inside and Alphonsine gave them a pep talk, I could see they respected her.  She inspired them that they could be like her and make it in this world, even though they come from extreme poverty. 

Many of these kids had single mothers who resorted to prostitution to put food on the table.  Their living conditions at home are squalor.  They dropped out of school, ran away from home, and lived on the streets, begging and stealing for food.  Some took drugs.  Many of these kids weren’t even teenagers which is so sad.  Alphonsine told me there was a period during her youth when she was hungry, didn’t have a bed to sleep on and was encouraged to prostitute herself (which she didn’t) to support her siblings and pay for school.  She said this is why she started RAS, so she could give these kids hope.  Saddened by the plight of these kids, I started to realize that I have some empathy.

View of Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda

Now I don’t want readers to get the wrong impression of Rwanda.  It’s a beautiful country, its green and mountainous, everything was clean and orderly, and I felt safe.  I stood out like a sore thumb and got some odd looks when I said hi to strangers on the streets (something common in the Midwest where I grew up).  I learned that the government requires citizens to clean their neighborhoods once a month.  Our HOA should hire them to manage our community 😉  It’s also amazing to seen how they’ve rebuilt Rwanda into a nation that’s setting an example for other African nations (so I’m told by Africans from other nations) after the devastation only 30 years ago. 

Fast forward 5 years.  Now it’s my 5th time to Rwanda.  As usual I really look forward to the trip, seeing her family and soaking in the beauty of Rwanda.  Now RAS is in a bigger facility which it’s quickly outgrowing with over 60 kids in the street child program.  The original kids I met 5 years ago are older, but I can still recognize their boyish faces in growing bodies.  One of them named Idrissa who went through RAS’s program came back to visit.  He graduated high school and received a scholarship to attend engineering school at a local university.  He’s become a role model.  It’s great to see kids like Idrissa follow in Alphonsine’s footsteps.

Idrissa chatting with Alphonsine

This time I also got to meet 30 kids who joined our new child scholarship program in 2022.  That brings are total kids served to about 100 and growing.  These kids weren’t rescued from the streets.  They are doing well at school and come from caring families.  However, their families are very poor and can’t afford their education expenses.  Schools withhold report cards for children who can’t pay tuition, so they can’t advance with their peers.  It’s unfortunate because they’re scoring at the top of their class.  These kids were exceptionally articulate and ambitious about their futures.  They especially admire Alphonsine as role model because they share a passion for education and that she’s successful. 

After encountering these kids and the stories of people like my wife who went through hardship, I’ve been developing more compassion and challenging the way I think.  For example, when the topic of immigration came up in the past, I defended the law without regard to the situations from which immigrants might be coming.  Now knowing that my wife was a helpless refugee during the genocide helps me reframe the issue with more mercy.  Furthermore, I still believe you should teach a man to fish.  However, now I realize he still needs to eat in the meantime while he’s learning.  Generosity is personally rewarding when you see the impact, and I believe a legacy worth leaving behind.