By John Dichtl and Victoria Albanese
Upbeat jazz music bounced off the walls at Highland Park’s Church of the Redeemer, 1731 Deerfield Road, Oct. 22 where posters testified to the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and efforts to save a generation and a country.
Mindful of the sorrows along with the joys, the North Shore’s contributing founders of Sonrise School, a boarding school in Musanze, Rwanda, have played a part in the recovery of hundreds of needy orphans for 12 years.
The music reflected the gaiety of church members and friends attending the silent auction, Weaving Hope, which raised nearly $35,000, including private donations, to support the operating costs of Sonrise School.
Over a hundred items and services were auctioned and bidders had bidding wars to up the ante. Some were heard later telling their friends, they would have given them their item of desire, had they known their interest.
The gaiety seemed to be a product of their spirit of generosity.“Last night was a great success,” said Michelle Becker, who coordinated the event with Christy Glick, reporting to the congregation on Sunday. “I’m just really blessed to be part of a community (in which) everyone contributes in some way.”
The people attending, over 100, and many who weren’t present, have made quite an investment in Sonrise School over the past 12 years.
Twice named the best Rwandan school based on national testing, the church helped to found the primary school in 2001, raising funds the previous year to support the vision told to them by then-Bishop John Rucyahana of the Shyira Diocese.
Sunrise opened its doors to 200 first- through fourth-grade students. Since then, a secondary school was built, saving the children again from the hardships of living on the streets. The Church of the Redeemer has hosted annual benefits that have covered a significant portion of Sonrise’s operating costs.
Last spring, members of the North Shore’s business and religious communities travelled to Rwanda, where they helped hand out diplomas to 38 graduates of the school. The class of 2011 was the first to graduate from Sonrise, a school which has become a national symbol of hope and academic excellence.
The ceremony took place on an athletic field in Musanze, Rwanda on March 19. The Sonrise seniors processed to the front behind a banner made by the children of Church of the Redeemer. Redeemer pastor Jay Greener presented the diplomas to the graduates.
“I was the only non-Rwandan granted this honor, aside from the school’s current headmistress,” Greener said. “The real tribute is not mine, but goes to those who began the Sonrise School benefit a dozen years ago and shepherded the ongoing support–I simply carried the baton for a lap of the race.
“For some of these students it was the first high school graduation in their family,” Greener said. “A number of these students had come through the genocide as small children. I don’t think we can understand the kind of intervention that’s taken place through this school.”
But the work doesn’t stop at graduation, in the minds of the North Shore residents. Of the 38 graduates from Sonrise, 21 qualified for entrance to the Rwandan university system. Greener said that tuition and room and board range around $2,500 – a comparatively small sum contrasted to higher education costs in the U.S.
Present with Greener were local businessman Pat Daley and Todd Murphy, associate director of Northwestern University’s Center for Leadership. Murphy explained that his organization is partnering with Bridge2Rwanda to foster a culture of entrepreneurship.
“The next 5 to 10 years are going to be critical,” Murphy said of his involvement. “It’s great to have people come up through the school and graduate but if they don’t get jobs, they’re just going to be that much more frustrated.”
Daley told of a young Rwandan he met who wanted to open a shoe store. But an organization recently had donated shoes in the area and thwarted his chances of success.
Daley hopes to see organizations work more strategically. One such effort led to the opening of a chicken farm to help meet local needs for protein, Murphy said.
“Bridge2Rwanda wants to see people come over, start something like that, and leave it behind,” Murphy said. “Then the Rwandans can have (the farm) and run it and it addresses a lot of needs.”
With national TV and radio coverage, the 2011 Sonrise commencement revealed the hopes of a nation. Greener said he looks forward to further supporting the school and the 80 students set to graduate in 2012.
North Shore residents sponsor students at Sonrise for $25 a month at the primary level. At the high school level, sponsors pay $40 per month.
Because of the recent rise in Rwanda’s cost of living, three sponsors per child are now being accepted.