As I exit the bus, everyone staring, I step foot on a familiar dirt path in the land of a thousand hills. Riding through Rwanda’s small village, Gatagara, is one of my favorite moto-rides in the country. At night, I would spend the whole ride staring at the sky; admiring the Milky Way and how charming the big dipper looks upside down. During the day, I get to appreciate the miles and miles of rolling green hills spotted with banana trees. As everyone stops and stares, the children begin running to the road, yelling “Muzungu,” the Kinyarwanda word for ‘white people.’ I turn and wave, causing them to burst into fits of laughter. The closer I get to my home, the bigger the smile on my face becomes. The turning and staring of the community members turns into smiles and waves. Suddenly, I don’t know which direction to look. The children yell “Jaime! Jaime!” I begin to shout back “Bite!” (‘Hi!’). The smile on my face widening with each friendly face I see. Soon I see the Kids Play International (KPI) sign and I am home.
I was first introduced to Kids Play International in the fall of 2016 while participating in the Linking Lives: Creating Sustainable Social Change study abroad program. As a freshman at Virginia Tech, I always knew I wanted to study abroad. My parents had given me the travel bug at a young age and since then I have always been itching to get out and see the world. When I learned that this particular program not only began with nine weeks of living and traveling around Europe, but also living the last five weeks in one of three countries in Africa, I was sold.
During my five weeks in Rwanda, I had the opportunity to live in Gatagara and work with Kids Play International with thirteen other Virginia Tech students. As someone who had participated in sports my whole life, I connected with this organization and their mission to teach gender equity through sport immediately. Volunteering with KPI those five weeks as an English teacher, a researcher for their grant proposal, and simply being able to participate in their daily after school Let’s Play Fair program ignited a passion within me. I began to see what an impact the program was having on the Gatagara community. I watched children take the values they were learning at KPI and spread them to their community. In the classroom, girls and boys were sitting next to each other interacting, something that used to be unheard of. At home, girls were standing up to their mothers and telling them that they could do any chores, not just cleaning. I couldn’t believe it! All of these life-changing lessons being taught through the sport of the season.
The impact KPI was having on the community was never more obvious than any time I worked with children in different communities around Rwanda. I realized the KPI kids were respectful, eager to learn, honest, and kind to one another. Instead of laughing when another student got a question wrong, other students would volunteer to help their peer out. KPI students would return markers without even needing to be asked instead of trying to take them home with them. I began to realize how many life lessons sports taught me in my life. Teamwork, leadership, integrity, conflict resolution, communication, determination are just a few examples of what values sport can teach. Not only did I recognize the substantial impact that sport can have, but at KPI I realized the impact that one person can have. The KPI community in Gatagara is a role model for the broader Gatagara community. They are changing the norms for everyone in Gatagara. I left Gatagara in tears, not ready to leave my new home, but with a plan to come back as an intern.
That next summer, I spent two incredible months working for Kids Play. During those two months, I had the opportunity to delve deep into KPI curriculum through its creation and implementation, and lived by their values daily. During this time I also had the special opportunity to work with KPI’s first Olympic Week Exchange. This event brought twenty delegates, including ten U.S. Olympians, athletes, and celebrities to Rwanda to celebrate Olympic Week. I learned so much about the non-profit world. Getting the chance to sit in on meetings with government officials, whether about potential grants or planning an event, gave me a real insight into how complex it can be working with other cultures. I saw what goes in to the making of an Olympic Week Exchange and all the behind the scenes planning and preparing. Getting to be a part of something so unique and be behind the scenes running the show was such an amazing experience. I learned a lot about my capabilities and myself.
After my summer internship I returned to the U.S. and began tackling my senior year at Virginia Tech, knowing I wanted to return to Gatagara again. I began closely working with the study abroad program that had first introduced me to KPI; and in the spring of my senior year I was hired as a Program Coordinator for Linking Lives. Fall of 2018, I had yet another incredible opportunity to work with KPI and Linking Lives. I was part of the team responsible for preparing and coordinating the logistics of the 5-week exchange in Gatagara on both the Linking Lives and KPI side. I was able to meld my two passions together and be a mentor for students just like me, experiencing KPI for the first time, while also working closely with KPI to develop curriculum, run programming, lead coaches training, and whatever else Kids Play needed from me. It wasn’t always the easiest thing, balancing two jobs…but it was the most rewarding two months of my life. I thrived off my students excitement and new found passions for KPI’s mission. During the exchange, my students worked on three different human-centered design projects that KPI had identified for them. Watching my students bring in their passion and enthusiasm in to create new ideas for KPI was incredible. I was unbelievably proud watching them discuss their ideas with the founder Tracy Evans. When I left Gatagara in November, I knew I would be leaving part of my heart with KPI, but taking so much more from them.
Kids Play uses the Kinyarwanda word “‘Ubutwari” as a translation of the value ‘moral courage.’ In Kinyarwanda, “Ubutwari” translates to ‘bravery’ or ‘heroism.’ As a child, I often dreamed of being brave. I believed the brave were the ones who ran into burning buildings to save lives or threw themselves in the line of danger for others. But as I got older, I developed a new understanding of what it meant to be brave. From a very young age, I was always fighting for what I believed was right by standing up for my soft spoken friends or even calling out kids who were breaking rules on the playground. My mother always told me I had a very strong sense of justice. I was always standing up for the little guy, and consequently was always the one taking the heat for it. The older I became, the more I began to see my own strength and value it above all else. I realized that I was standing up for those who didn’t have a voice, and no matter what people threw at me; I could take it if it meant doing the right thing.
At KPI, children are taught that the heroes are the people who do the right thing, even when it is hard. My experience at KPI has taught me that moral courage is the hardest value to teach. I now feel extremely lucky that this value of moral courage was instilled in me at a very young age and is something I have always strived to live my life by. Over the last five years I have worked in many different internships that have confirmed what I have known my whole life: whether it was advocating for the rights of women in Gatagara, Rwanda, or victims of crime in Virginia, I am dedicated to fighting for what I believe is right. Currently, I am pursuing my passion by beginning my first year at Washington and Lee University School of Law.
I wish to never lose my drive to fight for right and wrong. I know now that my unmoving value of moral courage is a rare value that not all possess, and therefore, I have a unique strength that sets me apart from others around me. Not only do I have the strength to do what is right, but I also have the strength to fight for the rights of others. Everyday, we make choices that affect not only our lives, but also the lives of others around us. I choose to positively affect not only my life, but also the lives of everyone around me by continuing my fight for justice by advocating for those without a voice. This is the bravery that I strive for daily. The bravery that means always choosing to do the right thing when everybody is looking, but also when no one is looking; the bravery of standing up for those without a voice. That is true bravery. Kids Play has taught me many things, but mostly it has taught me that you have a broader impact than you believe. I choose to live a life of bravery.