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Church Aids War Orphans

Members of the United Christian Parish are working to better the lives of impoverished children whose parents were killed in the Rwanda genocide or by HIV/AIDS.

Ten years ago in Rwanda, a largely poor and rural Central African country, Hutu extremists slaughtered more than 800,000 people in roughly 100 days. As a result, the United Nations estimates there are 100,000 Rwanda children living today without parents or a parent guardian. And coupled with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the number of orphans in Rwanda has grown to more than one million children.

After seeing a Nightline report about the plight of the thousands of impoverished Rwanda orphans left parentless by the 1994 genocide and AIDS, Yvonne Kauffman mobilized her fellow parishioners of Reston's United Christian Parish to help.

"Their needs are so great," said Kauffman, who traveled to Rwanda this year and in 2002 with other UCP volunteers as part of the church's Rwanda Project. "They had to rebuild everything. Their homes were gone. Their schools were gone. They had to start back up from nothing."

Kauffman and the others from the Reston church are helping to rebuild the country by building schools, feeding the children, paying for the orphans' education and constructing medical clinics and churches.

Each year, the church holds several fundraising events to help cover the costs of the work. Last Wednesday, the church hosted a golf tournament in Reston that brought in $4,000. Past art auctions and talent shows have raised an estimated $5,000 a piece, while individual contributions from the church's members have generated even more.

The money brought in by last week's golf tournament will be put toward building a school, a clinic and an orphanage in Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

"We take for granted so much of what we have here," said Mary D. Jackson, a member of the church who has also taken both trips to Rwanda. "They have nothing there. Nothing. But they have such faith and spirit in the midst of such degradation."

THE ORPHANS' resilience and faith, despite the horrors of the last decade, has inspired the volunteers and reinforced their hopes for Rwanda's future, several of them said last week.

"It's almost difficult to articulate the power of the peace of the people I encountered there," said Susan Fellowes, a former middle school teacher and a volunteer with the church's Rwanda Project. "There's a real solid spirituality and peace about them."

Fellowes said she was struck by the economic gulf that divides Rwanda from western nations. In Rwanda, the cost of an elementary school education is $120 annually, though few children can afford it. Most citizens of the United States, she pointed out, spend that much without thinking twice.

"Most of us spend that in a month at Starbucks," she said. "That's chump change for us."

Using church member contributions, UCP is sponsoring 67 children's elementary school education and one medical student's tuition bills.

EDUCATING young Rwandans is perhaps the church's most crucial goal with the project, volunteers said, because with more education, the likelihood of a second genocide is reduced. If the children are taught to make well-informed decisions, it becomes less likely their nationalism can be exploited and used for violence, they said.

"People who are in the dark and ignorant can get misguided so easily," Jackson said. "The more who are better informed, the better they'll all be."

And by helping put orphans through medical school, those future doctors will hopefully use their abilities to provide medical care in the poor Rwanda villages, Jackson said.

"If you can help educate a people, then they can start to help themselves," she said.

That need was driven home to the volunteers, they said, as Dr. Kathy Kelley, a physician and a member of the Reston church, examined orphans during the last trip, while hordes of mothers gathered outside with their children also in need of medical care.

"It just breaks your heart," Kauffman said.