In 2013, I joined a one-year fellowship that entailed working with some of the most vulnerable young men and women in Rwanda. Three years later, I could never have predicted the impact the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) would have had on my life.
ASYV is a place where “tears are dried” (signified by the Kinyarwanda word, agahozo) and where vulnerable youth can “live in peace” (from the Hebrew word, shalom). It was modelled after Yemin Orde, an Israeli youth village established in 1953, which originally cared for orphans of the Holocaust. Each year, the Village selects 128 at-risk teenagers aged between 15 and 18 to undergo a four-year healing and educational process. Through love, education, and sophisticated life skills programmes, the goal of the organisation is to transform each child into healthy, self-sufficient, and socially responsible citizens.
During my initial year at the Village, my role was to co-manage the informal education department alongside the programme coordinator and the director. The departmental goal was to provide an enriching educational environment that would enable teens to gain new skills and confidence, whilst encouraging them to think and act philanthropically.
I was later tasked with developing a comprehensive communication strategy to promote and increase the visibility of the organisation to its partners, donors, and to the general public. My duties included coordinating the design, production, and distribution of all promotional and communication materials to be used on social media, blogs, website, newsletters, email blasts, infographics, speeches, annual reports, fact sheets, and the online magazine.
Aside from my professional roles, I also served as mentor to a family of sixteen (and later eighteen) teenage boys. Referred to as their “cousin”, I was tasked with teaching them English, building their confidence, and acting as a continuous pillar of support. Most of my work with the family took place during family time – a one-hour period each evening that we spent together playing educational games, watching videos, or discussing current affairs. Additional roles included teaching sports, coaching the boys and girls football teams, and leading the environment club.
Toward the end of my first year in the Village, I was asked to write a short article for the ASYV website that was to be entitled “My Year as a Village Fellow”. My task was to summarise the twelve months I had spent living and working in the Village and to give advice to the new group of fellows who would succeed my cohort.
Leigh Woods – Agahozo-Shalom Village Fellow 2014/2016, Programs Coordinator Assistant and Sports Development/ Communications and Development
The year that I spent living and working at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village has been an incredibly insightful and gratifying experience. Before arriving, I remember feeling slightly apprehensive about my impending assignment. It wasn’t at all nervous about my professional responsibilities, but the task of serving as a “cousin” and mentor to eighteen teenage boys was a little daunting.
It quickly became apparent that my initial anxieties were entirely unwarranted. Despite my busy and at times exhausting schedule, my favourite part of each day was undoubtedly the one-hour I spent with the boys during family time. Whether playing educational games, debating hot topics, or discussing current world affairs, there was never a dull moment.
ASYV's holistic model has contributed immensely toward the development of each and every child in the Village. In addition, I have witnessed an astronomical rise in many individuals’ confidence and emotional intelligence over a very short period of time.
Amazing transformations are occurring within all areas of the Village. In formal education, the students’ grasp of the English language is rapidly improving and there is no greater testimony of their skills than during weekly family debates. In informal education, I have seen students who had never held a paintbrush before, go on to create their own masterpieces. One boy from my family couldn’t play a single chord on the guitar before arriving in the Village. Ten lessons later, all I can say is watch your back Van Halen.
As I come to the end of my time in the Village, I have started to reflect on my experience. In doing so, I've considered which aspects I will miss the most. After ruminating over the many great characteristics of the Village, I believe that the thing I will miss more than anything else is being in the company of such cheerful and optimistic people. For kids and staff alike, the level of enthusiasm for learning is striking, and every opportunity for personal growth is embraced with open arms. To leave an environment that exudes such profound positive energy is going to be tough.
As I conclude this piece, I think about those who will succeed us. My advice to future fellows is to bring to the Village a sense of good will and an open mind. Be accepting of living in an unfamiliar environment that encompasses many cultural differences. The earlier the fellows adapt to Rwandan life and embrace these cultural variations, the better.
The greatest advice I can give to future fellows is to frequently ask themselves the question, “Who am I here for?” Understand that every decision should be made in the best interests of the children. Put all of your effort into every little thing you do in the Village and the entire experience will be far more rewarding. Be sure not to end your tenure with any regrets, or with the feeling that you could have used your time more productively. Above all, immerse yourselves in the philosophy of the Village and embrace all that reside here with an open heart.