Since childhood, Rachel Ballen, a second-year student at Case Western Reserve University's Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, has been fascinated by Africa. A trip with her family to South Africa in 1998 sealed the deal.
Now, 10 years later, Ballen, who hails from Katonah, N.Y., is getting ready to leave in July for her third consecutive trip to Rwanda, where she works at an orphanage in the village of Rwamagana.
Ballen wanted to be a part of a long-term, self-initiated community service project, rather than a quick mission where a team visits a community, builds or repairs a structure and goes back home, never to return again.
A school friend with a Rwandan aunt helped Ballen make the proper connections, linking her with the Hameau des Jeunes orphanage in Rwamagana. Orphans at the facility number between 120 to 150 and range in age from infancy to 18 years. The younger orphans are there because their parents have died of AIDS or are otherwise unable to care for them. Older children are at the orphanage as a result of their families being killed during the genocide of 1994. All of the children receive food, clothing and medical care at Hameau des Jeunes.
In the summer of 2006, Ballen and her father traveled to the orphanage, carrying a load of games, arts and crafts and a kite, something the children had never seen before. Ballen herself was a new experience for the children, too.
"Most of the kids had never seen a white person," Ballen says. "Many of them came to me to touch my skin."
With fun and games scheduled for the mornings, Ballen held English and writing classes in the afternoon. "Language was a barrier at first, but it's amazing how much you can accomplish with just a handful of words," she says.
The next summer, Ballen returned with more supplies as well as several laptop computers. In addition to teaching the children English, Ballen taught them how to use the computers as learning tools and how to access the Internet.
When Ballen returns this summer, she will be taking stethoscopes and other basic medical equipment. "Once I receive my RN, I hope to go back to Rwamagana and practice at the orphanage," she says. "Until then, I hope to do more and more for them each summer. When I visited one of their hospitals and surgical rooms, it was like returning to 1950. There was nothing in the room."
Ballen's dedication to the orphans of Rwamagana doesn't stop when she returns home at the end of each summer. "Orphans in Transition," the nonprofit organization she founded with her parents, is raising funds to better the lives of the residents of Hameau des Jeunes and the children of the surrounding village. A fundraiser in May brought in more than $60,000.
In addition to funding the building and staffing of a kindergarten for the younger orphans, "Orphans in Transition" is planning a vocational high school that will teach the older students, who will not go to the university, a trade with which to support themselves after they leave the orphanage at age 18.
Ballen says that the high school will be a big help to the orphans who have to leave when they reach the age limit. "University education is not always an option for these kids and they don't have any family to fall back on because they were murdered in the genocide," she says. "After they leave the 'family' at the orphanage, we don't want them to become orphans a second time."
The third goal of "Orphans in Transition" is to build community homes for the children who age out of the orphanage.
Her ongoing work in Rwanda has given Ballen a sense of will as well as one of gratitude. And, in the bargain, another "brother." Last July, Alain Rwabukamba, 17, arrived in New York to live with the Ballen family. He has made a surprisingly easy adjustment to life in America and will be attending college in the fall.
"It puts life in perspective," she says. "It reinforces how lucky you are and how you really can make a difference."
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