In 2006, in a small hospital in rural southern Rwanda, a premature baby lay curled up in a washing bowl next to a wood stove to keep warm.
It was a sight Hilary King will never forget. At the time, the North Vancouver resident was working at Lions Gate Hospital. The contrast of seeing a nursery in the town of Kigeme was eye opening.
“That was just a turning point for me because inside my heart I was saying, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this.’ It was so extreme compared to what we have in North America,” recalls King, who was touring the Rwandan health care facility with a Lower Mainland Anglican church group.
King realized she didn’t have the capacity to raise funds for a brand new hospital for the community. But she did have experience in community development.
“My experience was telling me that maybe if we went further upstream to help these moms to stay healthy during their pregnancy, we would prevent the premature babies and the infant and maternal deaths that were very evident at that point,” she says.
That’s how Embrace Rwanda was born. King, the founder and executive director of the charitable organization, started things off by establishing the Healthy Mum’s Project in 2008. The program helps mothers through pregnancy by offering consultations with health workers and giving a goat to each mother to help provide better nutrition and a source of income. King saw positive change within a year.
“It was just amazing to see how women were following through with the advice they were given around hygiene and nutrition,” she says.
From there, the charity expanded its service offerings. As the babies grew into toddlers, Embrace Rwanda introduced an Early Childhood Education project to prepare young children for primary school and give them a foundation in English – the language used in Rwandan schools.
“We realized that it’s fine to help moms during pregnancy, but if that family and if that child is going to have a really good start, they need more attention during that first 1,000 days – that’s the crucial time for early childhood development,” King says.
Soon after that, Embrace Rwanda set up a vocational training centre to teach useful trades to adults, and an economic development program that organize micro-loans to help residents start small businesses.
From its beginnings, Embrace Rwanda has expanded to serve 11 districts of Rwanda (there are 30 in total). In its first year, the Healthy Mum’s Project helped 200 mothers. That number exploded to more than 2,700 mothers in 2015. Just last year, the charity was registered as an international non-government organization.
Currently, about 130 Rwandan staff run the various programs. King, who takes no salary, travels to the country twice a year at her own expense with a team of volunteers from Canada, the U.S. and U.K. These volunteers have backgrounds in health care, education and construction and help to train the Rwandan staff.
“The whole idea is not to go there and do things for people, or even to send people from Canada to work there. We encourage training so that local people are then employed,” King explains, admitting that making the programs self-sustainable is a challenge. “When people are coming from abject poverty, it’s difficult for them to quickly move into sustainability.”
King has travelled to other developing countries, but was particularly struck by the situation of Rwanda, a country which is still recovering from the 1994 genocide more than two decades later.
“It’s a country that was totally devastated during the genocide and the moms in these rural communities don’t have any other support because they’ve lost their mothers, their grandmothers, their aunties,” King says.
There is still a great deal of emotional trauma, she explains, and suspicion among neighbours leaves many people feeling isolated. As such, Embrace Rwanda is just now starting Healing the Next Generation, a program intended to help residents deal with lasting emotional trauma.
Asked what has kept her motivated to help out for the last 10 years, King doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“Each time I go I just see lives being transformed and I hear the women giving testimonies of how their lives have changed,” she says.
Visit embracerwanda.org for more information on Embrace Rwanda or to make a donation.