Year-End Update from Steve

December 8, 2015 | Steve Fredlund

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On Saturday, December 5th, we were honored to play host for the only Minnesota performance of the nationwide, “Jason Gray Christmas Stories Tour,” featuring Jason Gray, Carrollton, and Jonny Diaz. What a wonderful “welcome home” to our team just back from Rwanda—and what a great way to prepare our community for Christmas. The concert served to bring continued awareness and support for Our Response and World Vision’s efforts in Kivuruga, Rwanda.

An estimated 400 people participated in an evening filled with music, stories, and laughter. In addition to providing great entertainment and a sense of community, 24 more children were sponsored in Kivuruga, Rwanda. The number of Kivurugan kids sponsored via World Vision by people connected to Our Response now totals 725! These sponsorships alone account for over $300,000 every year being directed to an area where most people live on less than $1 per day. Thank you to everyone involved in this unified effort; I have never been more proud of my hometown community.

After an incredibly busy fall with a major event every month, it’s time to enjoy the Christmas season and finalize plans for 2016. To recap: In September, we hosted the “World Vision Experience,” where hundreds gained a deeper understanding of global poverty, and about 40 people either sponsored children or became partners to help Syrian refugees. In October, OR hosted Tonic Sol-Fa in concert, and another eight children were sponsored either at the event or later. In November, five of us spent 11 days travelling and visiting the people of Kivuruga, Rwanda, in an unforgettable several days (check out the blogs for those days). Then, finally, in December, we hosted the Christmas Stories Tour, which included a 16.5 hour day of set-up, discussions, prep, decisions, concert, and ultimately tear-down—finally sending the crew on their way to Waukesha for their next stop.

There have been many people who have put in a ton of hours the past few months, increasing the impact we are seeing in Kivuruga. To all of you, thank you so much for your diligence and commitment to what we are doing. For those of you sponsoring children, whether recently or from the very beginning, thank you for both the emotional impact you are having on these families, as well as for the financial impact being made not only on the families themselves, but on their entire communities.

For those of you who have made up the four teams that have travelled to Rwanda with me, “Murakoze cyane.”

For all of you, may you feel incredible peace, joy and contentment over this Christmas season and carrying forward into 2016.

Steve

Day Five

November 22, 2015 | Janie

Trekking for gorillas

A very different day today, but just as memorable. We left the hotel about 6:30am for Volcanoes National Park, which  borders Rwanda, Congo and Uganda. We arrived for a welcome and orientation about 7:00am. We added two more to our group, giving us seven people plus our guide, advance tracking team, and the two porters (Sherpas) we paid to carry our bags and help us as needed—turns out that was money well spent.

We found out that we would be looking for a group of gorillas named from some of the special leadership transitions they have gone through, including the only recorded group that has had a female leader, which it did for five months during a transition period. There are currently 19 members including a number of very young gorillas.

The trek itself was, shall we say, challenging. Shannon was an absolute trooper coming off being sick and not having eaten for about 36 hours. It was tough for all of us, but Shannon had to power through and we were all thrilled she made it—of course we knew she could!

After a quick orientation (basically how not to die when seeing gorillas) we started out with our walking sticks on an absolutely gorgeous day. We first walked about 30 minutes through fields to get to the start of the rainforest and it was unbelievably gorgeous…But this is where the trek really began. Forty-five minutes of primarily seeing little but the mud, your boots and the bamboo…But other times an opening would appear and you could look out at the broader forest. Incredible views. We were at an altitude of about 9,000 feet! We tried to take video and photo but I can tell you right now…it was even cooler.

Finally we got word that we were close. We found an opening and left all of our bags and belongings except our cameras. I put on the GoPro Hero, borrowed from Kyle Willette (thanks Patty)—don’t  know yet how it worked. Others brought video cameras, regular cameras and phones to capture what we could for the next hour.

It was an hour that seemed to last 5 minutes as we watched them eat, play, run, etc. We had a few amazing close encounters (like within one foot) but no reported contact. To be within a few feet of the powerful yet beautiful creatures was such a privilege. I don’t know if I will ever get to do that again but I’m so glad I have done it once.

The silverback was just massive and you could see the different personalities of the others. Of course the babies always steal the show with their eyes, jumping off trees, rolling down hills, wrestling with each other, and trying to act tough with “thumping” their chests.

My knees were not super excited about the trip up, but were absolutely screaming while standing on the side of a mountain for an hour and gingerly walking back down… But the adrenaline of it all overrides any of my concerns.

We have many pictures and video to show you, but will somehow have to narrow them down a bit first. I’m also glad I thought to offer them money to buy the walking stick I used on the trek, which they agreed to sell me. I’m planning to display it in a glass case in the middle of the living room…I expect no objection.

After finally getting back, full of sweat and mud (although getting rinsed by a cool rain at the very end), we went to a souvenir shop. I was successful in my quest for soapstone hippos, so I cleaned out my new friend and store owner Erick of most of his stock. Everything else in all the stores was purchased by Shane. Ok, maybe not that much, but his excitement for getting gifts for his family and donors was contagious. I remember my first shopping spree on my first visit and it reminded me of that, wanting to somehow share in a tangible way the experiences you are having in Rwanda. I’m not sure how we will pack everything up but we will figure something out.

After a long drive including a quick lunch stop, we made it to Akagera and the Ruzizi Tented Lodge. There was curiousity about how this place would be, but any concerns were left at the door. This place is so gorgeous and inviting. Of course it is dark, we had a long walk to our tents, and now I can hear sounds like hippo snorting right outside our tent. But other than that… Epic! We will give you more details tomorrow since it is late and dark. We have an all-day game drive tomorrow and I cannot wait.

On another note, as I was thinking during our long five-hour drive to Akagera National Park on the east, I pondered our team. Between questions for our guide, Claude, I looked back on occasion at this tired, muddy crew and found myself smiling on the inside. An interesting mix of people that formed this “fellowship”.

Shane, who came to Rwanda on absolute faith that he would have a great experience and everything would be safe. He is a great thinker and one who engages with the World Vision projects with a serious thoughtfulness. We have seen him come alive at so many times (one example was him visiting his sponsored child and family including meeting them in their home and seeing the gift notification impact). I’m so proud of his willingness to step way out of his comfort zone every day to bless me and the team, and to prove to himself that the bounds of his capability are even beyond what he could have imagined.

Tracy, who came on this trip because her heart has been beating for the people of Kivuruga for a long time, even though she had never been there. This was also stepping out of her comfort zone and I have been so blessed at seeing her engage fully in every situation—mind and heart and soul—as we encountered hard things, celebrated progress, and enjoyed laughter and living life. She is one whose face expresses the collective feeling of the group at every moment, whether grief/sadness, joy, hope, amazement or whatever. Her heart bleeding all over for her sponsored kids was so inspiring.

Terri, has been involved in sponsorship and volunteering with Our Response for several years, connected through her sister, Tracy. Terri has been a huge source of strength for the group as she is always willing to jump in and try anything with a “can do” attitude, and encourage us to do the same. She has a unique ability to engage both her heart and mind fully into situations; for most of us it tends to be one or the other (or at least a strong leaning). I’ve appreciated so much her “let’s do this” mentality. On a side note I’m super excited about a couple of things she bought for people (but don’t want to spoil it).

Shannon has been working with Our Response, including sponsorship, since basically we started in 2009. She is the only person besides myself to return to Kivuruga and I am so blessed she did. She is focusing on photos and video, but has been such an important part of our team. I cannot imagine our 2011 trip or the 2015 trip without Shannon. Her perspective is so grounded and I see how she connects in a real way with how the Rwandans maintain contentment, gratitude and joy in every situation. She won’t like me saying this, but after we started this hike I never thought she would make it without throwing up or passing out. But she did it while every step seemed to be the last possible one. This was a real example of how sometimes we can do way more than we ever think is possible…It was inspiring (once we knew she wasn’t going to die).

That’s our experience with the gorillas and part of my heart toward the only four people in the world who can join me in saying they were part of the 2015 Our Response Rwanda Trip Team. Thanks for the memories so far, memories yet to come, and continual encouragement. You are all “special” to me.

Thanks to all of you reading this and encouraging us. Our lives will never be the same.

Steve

 

Day Four

November 20, 2015 | Janie

Our final day in Kivuruga was another memorable one, although Shannon was sick and not able to be part of any activities. She is feeling better now and ready for the gorillas.

After breakfast we drove to the new Kivuruga Area Development Project headquarters, which serves a total of three ADP’s. It’s a wonderful area with room for offices and a couple separate buildings. It was really nice to visit the ADP and get to use modern plumbing. The staff are fantastic; they are led by Aimable, who was with us much of the trip and is a master encourager. He led us in song and a lesson which sparked some good discussion. We discussed ADP strategy and many other things before giving gifts and saying goodbye. We had a chance to share the history and impact of Our Response, which was critical for the new leadership and staff to hear. They encouraged us to continue uniting churches and coming alongside them in financial support of this work.

ADP offices

New Area Development Project headquarters

Aimable is the ADP manager

Aimable is the ADP manager

Kivuruga ADP office

We gave the ADP staff the little dresses and remaining boots and balls as part of our visit. The dresses (and some boys shorts) were made with love and donated by a number of East Central MN women, an effort coordinated by Ellen Lance (my momma!). The staff were so excited and already planning how to get these items to the people of Kivuruga; there was also talk of using them as incentives for scoring well on test scores. The people of Kivuruga loved everything we gave them and were so grateful to Our Response.

Little Dresses in hands of Amiable

Gift for Kivuruga from MN

We then travelled to an absolutely amazing farming co-op. These guys have managed to move people from survival farming into large scale farming, which has transformed so many lives. They now have 150 farmers working together in vast fields of corn, bananas and other crops. Approximately 1,500 farmers work for the co-op as part of the effort, turning the unemployed into the  employed. Owners in this co-operative now have more money and participate in savings groups. As one of the co-op leaders said, “We used to farm for survival. Now we farm for a purpose”. They have extra income and are able to buy food and pay school fees with no problem.

Jean de Dieux explains the coop

Jean de Dieux explaining the co-op

Corn/maize field in the coop

One of the corn/maize fields in the co-op

The past present and future in illustration.

Vision at the co-op. The past, present, and future in illustration.

The farmers also leaned to grow a different banana. Rather than small bananas, the co-op now grows bananas that are much larger in size, causing the growers to make about four times the amount of money. These practical changes are part of what makes this co-op so powerful.

New larger bananas

Checking out the new bananas.

A high ranking government official, upon touring the operation, has requested World Vision to help secure the equipment needed to open a mill as part of the operation. Being able to produce flour right at this co-operative will create an even greater economic boom. The co-op members have received so many awards and have such a clear vision of their future. These were uneducated farmers engaged in subsistence farming, but given the right training and support, combined with their own determination, they are now business men who are changing the economic viability of their families and community. They are so proud of their work—and should be. This was an amazing feat of transformation.

Everywhere kids!

As always, children followed us everywhere.

We then said goodbye to our new friends, including Aimable, before driving back for lunch. After eating, we said goodbye to two of our drivers and to Lorraine, who was with us representing World Vision U.S.

It was time to head north to let loose at the Cultural Village up near the Volcanoes. We had fun with our King Shane and Queen Terri, although Jimmy snuck in to be a second king. We had a great time with the King’s hut, medicine man, blacksmith, sorghum grinding, and archery. We also watched native dancing and joined in on the drums. This center employs former gorilla poachers who now participate here in exchange for a commitment to no longer poach.

After a brief stop for souvenirs, we returned to the hotel, had dinner, and said goodbye to Jimmy, our World Vision Rwanda host. Jimmy was an important part of the trip and we wish him well as he continues to plan his sister’s wedding on Saturday (they are expecting 600 people).

I had a chance to chat with our driver, Claude, for the next few hours. He seems fantastic and we got our plans all figured out for tomorrow. We are leaving the hotel at 6:20am to go track and hang out with gorillas. We will then drive about five hours to Akagera National Park and prepare ourselves for some safari time. Bring on the gorillas!

Steve

New Maternity Building in Kivuruga

Steve’s “Greatest Day Ever”

November 19, 2015 | Janie

“This truly may have been my greatest day ever.”

I have had more than my share of great days and events in my life—really more than my fair share.  But today, November 18, 2015 is probably my best ever. Though I cannot fully capture the beauty, energy, and raw emotion of all I have seen, I will nevertheless try, recognizing that the full weight of the experience cannot possibly be understood.

After a fun group breakfast, we left for the Bushoka Health Center. When we first toured Bushoka in 2011, we were shocked by many things, most notably the maternity facility. Babies were delivered in a 10′ x 10′ room made up of two tables. The room had no electricity, no running water, no floor drain, and there were no trained medical staff. Conditions were absolutely heartbreaking, and many have been hoping to bring improvement to the situation ever since.

Delivery Room in 2011

Delivery Room in 2011

Birthing Bed from 2011

Birthing Bed from 2011

That same year we also toured the Nutrition Center in the area where Our Response had donated $40,000 designated for building an addition to the center, as well as for nutrition training throughout the community. We were thrilled to be part of this amazing project, but it was difficult coming face to face with the needs.

We then returned in 2013, once again visiting Bushoka. While some additional rooms had been added to the clinic, we found the maternity area unchanged. The same ill-equipped room was still in use for all deliveries.

At that time, our hearts were also torn out by meeting a little girl, roughly one year old, who weighed only about 12 pounds. As we held our collective breath and fought through tears, we encouraged the staff to get her the help she needed at whatever the cost. The staff were already aware of the situation and planning an intervention, but they let us know that they would take appropriate steps and stay in communication with us.

Undernourished child

Photo from 2013

Enter our 2015 trip to Bushoka today. The entire tour was amazing: we viewed increased facilities, an upgraded lab area, improved waiting areas, and private consultation rooms. We also met with the heroic Community Care Workers. But nothing had prepared me for what was next.

New Maternity Building in Kivuruga

As we walked up a hill toward a piece of land previously used for crops, we spied a brand new beautiful building with the word “Maternite” painted on it. I almost audibly screamed in shock, and asked our Rwandan leader if we were looking at an entire building for maternity patients. When he said, “Yes,”  I burst into tears. I had no idea this was coming. I think almost every day of the thousands of women who have given birth in that old room and how many complications have resulted. The prior four years of wishing we could do something came flooding in as I realized much of this new development had been funded by sponsorship dollars—money raised from kids sponsored in Kivuruga, over 700 sponsorships by people primarily living in East Central Minnesota. The emotional impact was unexpected and staggering. Never in my life had such a positive surprise rocked my world. As I toured this lovely building made up of a reception area, waiting area, delivery area with privacy screens, a separate post-delivery area—as well as electricity and running water—I was overcome with excitement.

 

new maternity building

new maternity building in Kivuruga

After composing myself and seeing a few other parts of the center, we went to the nutrition area.  This is where meals are served to undernourished children and where mothers are educated about nutrition and many other things. This building is also where, in 2013, we encountered the little undernourished girl. As we first started hearing from the staff, I started getting some curious looks from the Rwandan staff. They were speaking in Kinyarwandan while looking at me. I was confused.  Our guide, Jimmy, then said, “Do you know why we are talking about you? Do you know that malnourished girl you saw in 2013? Well, she is here.”

I didn’t even know what to do; I was literally speechless. I went over to her, knowing that this Nutrition Center (funded in part by Our Response) had literally saved her life.

2015 child

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We watched as they measured and weighed her.

Undernourished child measured and weighed

While she is still “stunted”, meaning her height is extremely low relative to average, her weight is now normal for her height. One of the measurements they take is around her bicep on her arm. In 2013, the tool measured her bicep at 8.5 and now it was measured at 14.0  For perspective, I used that tool to measure my thumb at 8.5; that’s how big her arms were two years ago (I don’t have big man thumbs).

Undernourished child

Undernourished child in 2015

We went on to learn about the feeding of the children who were currently coming to the center. As always, we participated in serving the food. We were getting some great information and humbled by the opportunity to serve, but my mind was still paralyzed by the maternity ward and that little girl.

So what should we do next? Well how about go and reconnect with the most heroic person I have ever met: Florence, leader of the AIDS Caregivers.

Leader of the Caregivers

Over the years we have provided caregivers with raincoats and medical supplies. On our last trip Florence mentioned a need for rain boots. Thanks to generous donations by New Hope Community Church and others, we were able to bring boots to Florence and her team. But when we first caught sight of each other, Florence and I ran to embrace and I felt like I was hugging her our entire time there. This wonderful woman has such a sweet spirit about her.

Kivuruga Caregivers

Community Care Workers

After some conversation and learning about their work, Florence presented us with a beautiful handmade basket with the words “World Vision” and “CCC” (for Community Caregivers Cooperative) woven into it. Such an amazing personal and special gift! We in turn were able to give her, along with the rain boots, a picture of the 2013 trip team to remember us by. As expected, the group broke out in song and dance. Jimmy had a tough time settling them down to be able to continue.

We also found out that these volunteers stain fabric to be used for dresses and other clothing. The money earned is used to help care for those with HIV and AIDS. For example, for their patient today they were using some of that money to help construct a vegetable garden. Previously the caregivers helped her and her five children build a home, the one that we were visiting. When we asked if we could purchase fabric, we were of course given the opportunity. Collectively we bought eight large pieces of fabric totaling 56,000 Rwandan francs (about $80 USD). I am bringing three of these pieces of cloth back with me that I’m excited to share with the sewers I know! I will want something made from them that will be a constant reminder of Florence, the caregivers, and Kivuruga.

Fabric for Sale

We then had an opportunity to have lunch with the Interfaith Church Committee, a group of pastors from Christian and Muslim churches that are working together in intentional unity to bring about change to their community. Over the years these individuals have inspired much of what I am trying to do with Our Response in East Central Minnesota. Helping churches, businesses, schools, and individuals understand the power of unity, the power of putting aside certain differences to accomplish a higher purpose. Their wisdom and insights have informed, in many ways, who I am.  And today was a confirmation of the many conversations we have had with them in the past. These leaders continue to push forward in unity; they continue to focus on the transformation of their community and the care of their children.

After lunch, we traveled to the Anglican Church (yes, former trip team members, the same one) where we were greeted with the electric sound of a hundred or more children singing at the top of their voices and dancing like crazy. The echoes in the church created a deafening sound as we entered the church and enjoyed their song and dance. We also sat in on a little bit of a Sunday School lesson before heading outside to play with the kids.

We had brought many of the balls, pumps and carrying nets donated by Immanuel Church in Forest Lake, and, boy, did the kids explode at that. We put about 15 of them out there to play with and it was utter chaos for about 30 minutes, with us muzungu—white people—right in the middle of it. The smiles and laughter coming from the muzungu and the Rwandans was overwhelming at times. Clearly, I sweated through both shirts, but I’m guessing not one person cared. We eventually were each able to trade one of our soccer balls for one that they had made, an exchange I continue to treasure with every trip.

Many of our soccer balls were given to area pastors.

Many of our soccer balls were given to area pastors.

Terri presenting soccer balls to another pastor

High fives with the kids

High fives with the kids

Soccer Balls

Boscoe helps pump up soccer balls

Finally, I thought this emotional day would come to an end! But no, we stopped at a small shop that World Vision has helped establish for people who can sew and tailor clothing as their business. They have also apprenticed 10 young ladies who have gone on to work at another shop, and are currently apprenticing two more. While we were sweating (more sweating) in this small shop, it was so great to see their smiles and pride in their work. This sort of economic development is truly inspiring because of the benefits on so many levels. We had a chance here, too, to buy printed fabrics or finished items (dresses, etc). Several of us made purchases. I picked up more fabric for people back home. I think the cloth is beautiful; we will see what others think!

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Finally we wrapped up our time in Kivuruga and drove back to Musanze, taking in once again the beauty of this place and people. After a short unwind, we took a brief walk to a restaurant where we ate outside and had some wonderful pizza (taste of home!). Jimmy said the pizzas were personal pizzas, showing us a circle 6-8″ in diameter. Well, Jimmy was a bit wrong as they brought out each of our large pizzas. It was a ton of food, but we did the best we could. We discussed today, tomorrow, and enjoyed a lot of laughs. Tomorrow is our last day in Kivuruga, and it tears me apart. We will never have this particular team together again. We may never spend time again with Jimmy.  I think about these experiences that we shared that we will never share with another group.

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Our guide, Jimmy

Our guide, Jimmy

Sometimes you wonder if it’s all worth it. The thousands of hours, the amount of money, the late nights, the time away and use of vacation time, listening to those who oppose what we do, wondering if we really are making a difference. These trips, and specifically today, answer every single one of these questions. This truly may have been my greatest day ever.

Thank you to all those who have believed in what we are doing through your financial support, child sponsorship, prayers, encouragement, kind words, participating in events, donating balls or rain boots, sewing dresses, volunteering at events, etc, etc, etc. I wish I could have had you all in my pocket today as we saw the impact of your support and encouragement.

A special thank you to every one of you who don’t necessarily carry the same views regarding religion, political affiliation, or reaction to world events, but you have decided to look past those differences to be part of a unified “response.” This level of unity is heroic and inspiring. It’s easy to be on the side of those you agree with; it’s harder to join forces with someone you disagree with for the sake of a higher purpose. This heroism describes many of the thousands of people who have been part of Our Response.

Thank you,

Steve