LACONIA — When Jeanine Mukarubega was still living in Rwanda, she became known for a particular act of kindness: Hospitals in that country don’t provide food to their patients, so Mukarubega would bring meals to patients who didn’t have family nearby, and weren’t able to pay for food to be delivered.
Mukarubega is living far away from Rwanda now, but, thanks to help from some of her new friends, she is able to help her home country more than ever.
Mukarubega has lived in Laconia since 2006, and has found a career as a nursing assistant. She also volunteers as executive director of the Rwanda Children Educational Foundation, a mission of the Laconia Christian Fellowship. The RCEF sponsors children to attend school in Rwanda, where only about 15 percent of eligible children attend high school.
And now, the parents of those children have the opportunity to improve their fortunes, too, thanks to several Lakes Region Rotary clubs. After hearing about Mukarubega’s scholarship efforts, the Rotary clubs leveraged funding through Rotary Club International to start a micro-loan program, the goal of which is to put the families in a position where they no longer need scholarships for their children.
Mukarubega lost 200 members of her family during the 1994 genocide, when more than a million members of the Tutsi Tribe were killed. She was on a list of people to be targeted, and had to relocate to escape the killers. Her husband, Richard, was granted asylum in the United States in 2003, and was placed in Laconia. Jeanine followed three years later.
In 2012, Mukarubega began sponsoring 10 children in Kigali, using only the income she and Richard generated.
Public education is free in Rwanda, but there are often associated costs that keep children away. Schools might ask students to pay teacher fees, and parents also have to pay for uniforms and materials. For the poor in Kigali, acquiring safe drinking water is a daily challenge, and school for children may become an unattainable expense.
Mukarubega knows well how this shakes out. “In my childhood, it was very hard for me to study,” she said. Her parents divorced when she was in school and couldn’t afford to continue to send her. Her uncle took her in and paid her school fees for a few years, until he died. It wasn’t until after she was married that she was able to finish her high school education.
“It was stuck in my heart and head, if I got the chance, I will support children in their education,” she said.
When the Laconia Christian Fellowship learned that Mukarubega was sponsoring children in Rwanda, the worship organization decided to take on the project as a mission. That’s how RCEF was formed, with Mukarubega as the executive director and a board made up of Christian Fellowship members.
Then, two years ago, Mukarubega was invited to speak about her organization at a meeting of the Gilford Rotary Club. Gary Dehnel, a member of the Meredith Rotary Club, happened to be in attendance, and he had just come from a conference where he learned about the opportunity to apply for a Global Grant through Rotary Club International. He knew he wanted to apply for a grant – which matches local seed money with funds from the worldwide organization – but he didn’t know just what he would use the funding for.
Then he heard Mukarubega speak.
Mukarubega then embarked upon a tour of local Rotary clubs, and when she was done, Dehnel was able to collect a total of $14,000 in seed funding from Rotary clubs in Alton, Gilford, Laconia, Meredith, Tilton-Northfield and Belmont, as well as from the Inter-Lakes High School Interact Club and the Lakes Region Rotary Club.
That $14,000 was boosted to $49,000 by The Rotary Foundation. But that funding couldn’t be used for school fees, because Global Grant funds must be used for a sustainable purpose. Instead, that money is being used as the foundation for a micro-finance organization run by RCEF.
Currently, there are 28 loans out to parents of students sponsored by RCEF. Most of the loans range from $100 to $600 and have a six-month term. To date, no loan payments have been missed.
The loans are intended for the recipients – most of whom are single mothers – to start or expand a business. One recipient used her loan to start a chicken breeding operation. Another used the money to travel out of the city to purchase vegetables she then resold in Kigali for a profit, and a group of women has teamed up to start a sewing business.
One of the most successful has been a trio of mothers who used their loan to purchase an electric mill they use to produce a popular flour made from a corn, sorghum, soy and cassava combination.
“Every parent is happy to take care of their children, it will be proud for them,” Mukarubega said.
“Then we can move to other parents who didn’t get the chance.”
Kigali has nearly a million residents, many of whom struggle on a day-to-day basis. While Mukarubega has been able to escape that struggle, she is not the kind of person who would turn her back on the problem.
“I don’t like to see people suffering, it hurts my heart. If I have something to help someone, I can do. Because I know how life is,” she said.