This time it's personal.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." When I first read these words of Margaret Mead years ago, I envisioned such a group to be organized and made up of dedicated activists with a clear vision of how they were going to change the world. Never did I dream that they might apply to my women's support group. Who, us? We were too social, too old, too beset with our own issues.
Yet it happened. I'd like to say we went searching for a noble cause, but, in truth, God dropped it in our laps. In my lap, to be specific. And, not wanting to face the challenge alone, I took it to my women's support group.
We are 24 post-menopausal suburban women who have been meeting monthly for 25 years. We began back in the '70s when a friend named Maria invited a few of us together to support one another as we struggled with new post-parenting careers. Along the way, we invited friends who invited friends. For years, we called ourselves by the mundane title the Second Saturday Group, but when Maria died a premature death eight years ago, we renamed ourselves Maria's Group in her honor.
We've had an interesting journey as a group. When we first gathered, we were in our 30s and 40s. Our collective offspring--in high school, college, or out--no longer required the full-time attention most of us had given them for 20 years. We were embarking on a variety of new careers--grad school, business, social work, journalism, and the like.
At our monthly meetings, after pouring ourselves coffee and settling into a wide oval, we would ask, "Does anyone want to talk?" Someone always did. For the first five to 10 years, our agenda focused on personal, marital, young adult, and work problems. Our changing feminine consciousness fueled most of these issues. We cried with a friend who suddenly found herself traded in by her husband for a new young trophy wife. We celebrated promotions, anguished over the defeat of the ERA, and laughed at our own foibles.
During the second decade, we began to focus on difficulties in dealing with our aging parents: long-distance caring, declining health, being present to them as they endured the rigors of old age, and their ultimate deaths. At the same time, we shared the joys of our children's graduations, marriages, careers, grandchildren, and the professional successes of our own members.
Now that many of us are in partial or complete retirement, we're facing our own health problems, while also enjoying time to take on all those "someday" activities postponed during earlier years: classes, book clubs, volunteering, travel, and avocations.
In faith, we are a diverse group--three Catholics, five Jews, and the remainder mainstream Protestants or of no organized denomination. Religion is rarely discussed but the spirituality of daily living pops up frequently.
Admittedly, we are a highly educated and professional group of women. Several of us were originally trained in education, health care, and social work--the traditional professions for women--before later developing diverse professional paths. In age, we presently range from 55 to 82.
An impossible dream
It was into this mix that God dropped the Rwanda Women's Project. It came about when my son, a humanitarian aid worker in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, invited a woman I will call Nyoni--a 40-year-old mother, teacher, and friend from Rwanda--to visit us in Colorado in 1997 after a short study session in Maine sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
I called Nyoni in Maine and asked what she would like to see while here. I expected her to name the mountains and other Colorado attractions but was pleased to hear that she wanted to visit an elementary school and to attend a women's support group. Active in all areas of women's and families' welfare in post-genocide Rwanda, she had heard about women's support groups but hadn't experienced any and she thought they might be valuable to establish in her own country.
Although we did take her to the mountains, I also arranged an unscheduled Maria's Group morning. We sat on a member's patio on a glorious June morning while Nyoni captivated us with her story of life as a woman in Rwanda, her terrifying experiences during the genocide, and the fallout from the genocide that murdered nearly a million people. This fallout included a nation of traumatized children--75 percent of whom had witnessed at least one parent maimed or killed--widows with an average of eight children and no rights to land or welfare, and victims of rape as a weapon of war.
And then Nyoni shared her dream with us. "I dream of coming to study in America some day. I feel so helpless. I want to learn how to help my students in trauma and women in abuse and poverty. I don't have these skills. And the women and children of Rwanda need them desperately."
A college scholarship was just a faraway dream for her, but we told her that, should the opportunity for study here ever materialize, to contact us and we would help support her. It was a genuine invitation. But given the political climate of Rwanda, Nyoni's mixed Hutu-Tutsi marriage, and four children she was rearing alone, it seemed an unlikely reality.
Godmothers to the rescue
So I was stunned when a mere four months later Nyoni wrote me indicating that she had a scholarship to American University in Washington, D.C. and needed our help with fares and living expenses for her and her 6-year-old daughter, Camellia. Her three teenagers would be remaining with her extended family in Rwanda.
A quick call to the INS revealed that a foreign student has to show proof of having enough funds to live on for a year plus fare home. For Nyoni and Camellia that was estimated at a minimum of $30,000. Timidly, I approached Maria's Group and after an all-morning discussion, we decided raising that amount was doable, although nobody had any specific ideas on how to achieve it. We didn't even have dues, much less a treasury.
Furthermore, few of us had any experience in staging benefit galas. The closest we came to considering a big fundraising event--a mammoth yard sale-- was quickly vetoed on the basis of insufficient energy. We finally settled on our own direct-mail campaign, each agreeing to send letters to 20 or more friends and colleagues. I wrote a generic letter explaining the project and embellished it with photos of Nyoni and Camellia. We penned personal notes to these and sent them off.
Although we were neophytes in raising money, we quickly discovered that we possessed invaluable resources within the group for meeting the formidable obstacles we experienced in getting Nyoni out of Rwanda and into school here. Each time a crisis popped up--weekly, it seemed--someone in Maria's Group knew someone who knew someone who could help us.
When we learned that it would take six months to obtain tax-deductible status the same week that Nyoni informed us that her life was in danger and she needed to get out immediately, one of our members put us in touch with a friend whose international development project already had 501 (c)3 tax-deductible status. Because our project met the organization's guidelines, he agreed to bring us under its umbrella. We were then able to send out our begging letters and pray for incoming checks.
Where there's a will, there's a way
This set the pattern for the success of our project. When we learned that Nyoni had been mistaken about her scholarship at American University, one of our members knew a former international studies director who suggested she apply to a local institute that prepares foreign students for grad school. This would enable us to get her a student visa and give us three summer months to find a college and scholarship money.
My husband and I had invited Nyoni and Camellia to live with us temporarily. We had also offered to pay airfare from Rwanda to Denver until we learned that it was $3,500 one way, another shock. A priest friend told me he had a nun friend who "had enough frequent flier miles to get her to heaven and back." She called me with her order's offer to pick up the airfare. We were overwhelmed with gratitude, as we often came to be in the days ahead.
One of our Maria journalists wrote a story on our project for the local paper. Another "saint" stepped in and offered free preschool tuition for little Camellia, who spoke no English. Later, this same saint paid the airfare to bring Nyoni's three older children here when their situation became dire in Rwanda.
Another member had contacts with the director of the graduate school of social work at Denver University, which ultimately offered Nyoni a scholarship to earn the degree she so ardently desired. Nyoni's GPA never slipped below 3.6 in her 15 months of graduate study. Each quarter when she calls to announce her grades, we beam like the proud godmothers we are.
Word of mouth about our project spread among my Catholic contacts. A friend from the Sisters of Mercy called, suggesting we apply to the McAuley Fund, which we did. Their $5,000 grant was the largest we received, and we rejoiced over it. Almost two thirds of the funds collected came from Catholic sources. One of the most heartening offers came from a local women's spirituality group of 10 members who pledged $100 each. We also received $1,000 from the Denver Ecumenical Women's Group.
Our spouses were wonderful. Mine took over transporting Camellia to pre-school, arranging for her required inoculations, obtaining Nyoni's identification cards, setting up her bank account, and obtaining health insurance. A couple of computer-savvy husbands collected, assembled, and set up the technology Nyoni required for grad school study. Another took over our project's bookkeeping after I explained my own checkbook procedures and disasters.
"We didn't realize how many friends we had," commented a member as offers to help poured in. We discovered that people are generous with their time and expertise if they are asked to be part of a specific project.
Changing the world--and us
By the end of 1998, we had accomplished our goal. Nyoni and her children were here, well-housed, and studying in four different schools. Our $30,000 covered their tuitions and living expenses for the year. Someone commented that it usually takes an entire parish or congregation to resettle an immigrant family but that somehow, miraculously, we had achieved it with a minimum of resources. Margaret Mead's words about a small group of committed citizens' ability to change the world ring true in our Maria's Group experience.
While we are gratified by the success of our small effort in helping to change the world through Nyoni, we discovered that the project has returned to us as much as we have given to it. For years, we wished aloud that we could improve the quality of life for women and children in impoverished cultures, but the immense need always overwhelmed us. Where does one small group start?
But when we were sent the opportunity to meet the needs of one woman with one child, our one small group rallied. For a year, our focus moved from ourselves to others, from personal problems to world problems, and from caring to action. We learned that we possessed untapped resources, that it doesn't take a large organized group to achieve change, and that working together on a worthwhile project gave us a focus that brought us closer. Moving from the inside out has been a rewarding leg of our journey.
"It gave us focus at a time we really needed it," says Madge. "We were coming together and discussing unimportant things, sharing without much depth. We needed a spiritual experience, and that's what it gave us." She adds, "I had saved the money I donated for a trip to Aspen, but a week in Aspen wouldn't give me one fiftieth of the joy and growth I received in giving to the project. And I loved doing it."
Ruth comments that the project has given Maria's Group a greater meaning and purpose. "This family has made all of us more aware of how the human spirit, with kindness and help, can overcome obstacles that seem insurmountable," she says. "We all hoped that we could help Nyoni achieve a better life for herself and her family. We did not know that her own abilities and persistence would far surpass our expectations."
Nyoni and her children thrived in school. Her scholarship was renewed, and she graduated with a master's degree in social work at the end of this semester. As soon as it is safe to do so, she plans to return home to work with women and children in her beloved Rwanda. We look forward to a grand send-off--24 godmothers smiling and waving goodbye at the airport.
By DOLORES CURRAN, an author and family specialist from Littleton, Colorado. Her most recent book is Tired of Arguing with Your Kids? (Sorin Books, 1999).
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|Title Annotation:||women's group sponsor's Rwandan woman's study in U.S.|
|Date:||Aug 1, 2000|
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