Sean is the coordinator of the Rwandan Orphans project with all of their ambitious programs.For more information check out the Rwandan Orphans Project website, Facebook page, their new Twitter account, or their other website highlighting stories from ROP. Sean also finds time to write articles for this website and he even runs his own travel blog – The Jones Experience – with some really interesting posts and great photos.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I came to Rwanda from Texas in January 2010 for a six month volunteer stint at the Rwandan Orphans Project (ROP). After finding some issues with the management, the board of directors in the US appointed me the coordinator of the ROP Center and I, along with my colleague Jenny, who came on board a few months later, have been working to build up the organization ever since.
How did you get involved with the Rwandan Orphans Project?
Bored with my life and tired of working for a corporation for 10 years, I decided I wanted to try volunteering abroad for half a year or more. I wanted to work for a small, grass roots organization where my skills and energy could have the most impact. After a couple of months of researching online, I settled on the ROP, which consisted of little more than a few board members in San Diego and a handful of Rwandan staff running the center in Kigali. I contacted the board and after about six months of saving as much money as I could I left for Rwanda.
Can you give some background on the ROP?
The ROP started out as nothing more than an abandoned warehouse in Nyabugogo, Kigali’s industrial area where most street children tend to congregate. In 2006 a group of Americans from California visited Rwanda and were told about the terrible conditions the children in the warehouse were suffering. Upon returning to the States they founded the Rwandan Orphans Project as a registered charity to raise funding to provide regular funding for food, clothing and education to the children there.
In 2010 we were able to leave the warehouse behind and move to an abandoned school in Kanombe, just past the airport. Since moving there we have developed many new programs and have greatly expanded the services we provide our children.
Who do the ROP help and how?
The ROP houses about 100 boys from ages 5 to 18. These are children from the streets of Kigali as well as from Rwanda’s poor rural areas. We have an in-house primary school for our boys which has extra capacity, so we open our classes to both boys and girls from outside the ROP who come from poor families in our community. These families cannot afford to pay even the low public school fees so without ROP their children would not be attending school at all. We also pay for vocational training for ten older teenage boys who started school too late in their lives to be successful academically. We also have a program of making and selling quilts, handbags and other items, using the profits to fund a secondary school scholarship program for young female genocide survivors.
What does a typical day look like for one of the boys at the ROP?
The boys wake up around 6am and start their daily chores of making their beds, cleaning the dormitories and classrooms before taking breakfast and washing themselves. They start the school day at 7:30am by lining up in the school foyer to sing a couple of songs and so the head teacher can make sure each child is clean and prepared for the school day. They then attend their classes until 1pm. After school they have lunch and the rest of their day is filled with various activities. We have several sports for them including football, volleyball and rugby, as well as a library/playroom where all children get time to enjoy our numerous books, toys, puzzles and arts and crafts supplies. We encourage our older boys to spend their afternoons reviewing their notes and taking advantage of tutoring sessions offered by our teachers. In the evening, when the sun goes down they usually play football on our playground before taking dinner around 6pm. The boys then bathe and some of them spend the rest of the evening in the dormitory until they sleep while others watch the news on TV or study in the classrooms.
What are the goals for the boys once they leave the orphanage?
While we would love for all of them to be millionaire businessmen someday, our realistic goal is to provide them with enough opportunities and education to provide themselves with a comfortable living once they leave the program. Long before a graduate leaves, our social workers prepare them for the outside world by leading workshops as well as finding outside mentors to teach the boys various life skills such as personal finance, budgeting, starting a business, buying groceries, searching for a job, etc. When they graduate we rent them a small “transition house” to share for a few months while they get on their feet. During that time we provide them with a small monthly stipend that they must manage themselves, under the supervision of our social workers, who also help them find jobs. After three months we assess their progress and if they are able to be self sufficient we release them from our care. All of the young men we have graduated this way are now working and providing for themselves with no support from ROP.
Who cares for the boys?
Altogether we have 14 Rwandan staff and two international staff who care for the children. This includes a director, a deputy director, a supervisor of children, three caretakers, two social workers and six teachers. The two international staff are coordinators who work to grow the program and build and maintain relationships with international and local donors.
What is your role in running ROP?
I am one of the coordinators of the ROP organization, as well as member of the ROP’s board of directors.
What sort of challenges do you face with the ROP?
They greatest challenge is funding. We are a small, grassroots organization based in the US and funded nearly entirely by individual donors who give $50 here or $100 there. We have no corporate or NGO donors at the moment so each month is a struggle to keep current programs going and as well as making it difficult to add new services for our children.
Aside from that, the greatest issue is trying to reintegrate children with any relatives they may have. Many families prefer their children stay in a center where all their needs are paid for, while we prefer a child grow up amongst his family. We realize that no matter how great of an institution we may be, we are still an institution and not a replacement for one’s own family.
How is ROP funded?
As I said before, the ROP is completely funded by individual donors from the US and Europe. We are working hard to involve more donors from individuals, companies and NGOs within Rwanda. To help make our funding less dependent of charity we are working on new ways to generate our own income, such as a tuition based nursery school and an agriculture project.
Is there are way for volunteers to help?
We’ve realized that short term volunteers aren’t able to benefit our children in long term ways, so we prefer to take volunteers who are able to commit to a minimum of two months with us and are willing to develop a regular schedule and stick to it. Many of our children have had experiences with abandonment before coming to the ROP, so we prefer that friendships they make with volunteers last beyond a couple of weeks. That being said, we are always grateful to have volunteers who are willing to spend time teaching our boys computers as well as tutoring them in English and other subjects. We also welcome anyone and everyone who wants to make donations of toys, books, clothes or any other items we could use, as well as helping us with fundraising and just getting our name out there so people will see our wonderful program and possibly want to help in one way or another.
What are the future goals and plans for ROP?
We have very big dreams for the ROP, even if we don’t have the means to achieve them just yet. Thanks to a large donation last year we were able to purchase our own piece of land in Kanombe (we are renting our current home for a budget-stressing amount each month). On this land we don’t want to build just a center for street children and a school, but also a community center where many more poor children can receive free schooling, where our own boys can live in better conditions, and where poor families can receives skills trainings in the hopes that they can provide for their own children, rather than having them end up in institutions like ours.
Hopefully, over time, we can become less a place where children come to escape the streets but rather a place a where their families can come to prevent them from going to the streets in the first place.