What it Means to Join Latin in Rwanda

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I’deyah Ricketts

2005 senior prefect Jeremy Porter sparked Latin’s one-of-a-kind summer program by posing a simple question: “what can we do to help?” For LIFE speaker, Dr. Marge Cohen, his concern and curiosity came as a surprise. Her invite to LIFE (Latin’s Initiative for Ethics) in 2005 solely entailed a discussion on her work: providing holistic HIV/Aids for Rwandan women. But Dr. Cohen walked out of Latin’s doors with so much more: a partnership with Upper School students and Latin in Rwanda gleaming on the horizon.      

Within three months, Latin raised $10,000 to fund the first trip to Rwanda. The money [raised] funds [the Rwandans] breakfast, lunch, water, and pays for artists who come to do projects with them. It includes transportation and field trips which is really important for [the kids],” said Ms. Dorer, a co-founder of the program. “The average salary in Rwanda is under $500 which isn’t much. We raise extra money to send one of the peer counselors—as chosen by the camp counselors—off to college.” Similar to years past, Latin in Rwanda put on a show-stopping talent show and sold raffle tickets this month outside of the Learning Commons, ready to fulfill their yearly goal.

By self-funding 100% of the resources, Latin works to supply anything the Rwandan kids and teens identify as need. Whether it’s iPad training, a meal on the table, soccer balls, or robots, Ms. Dorer puts the responsibility in the hands of those at the school to foster the environment they envision. She realizes that “we can bring some things that they wouldn’t get otherwise. They make a lot of the decisions about what that is.”

But the impoverished circumstances and inadequate resources don’t dim the excitement and passion within the kids. Ms. Dorer recalls when Latin students “tried to build test robots before [they went to Rwanda] and some of them went backwards or didn’t work at all. But [the Rwandan kids] were half as fast as they were.” The kids have an unmatched talent of soaking up any skills or information fed to them within only seconds. “I also remember when Prentice, our driver’s little one, first saw an iPhone. She had never seen iPhone or worked with an iPhone. Honestly, three seconds later she was through all of the apps and finding everything with ease,” continued Ms. Dorer. The introduction of smartphones and electronics prepares the Rwandan students for future technologically advanced schools. Without a doubt, their wide-eyed engagement sets them up for a bright future of more than just problem-solving and critical thinking, but also curiosity.

Over the summer, Upper School students work with Rwandan peers and plan similar activities—around sports, dance, arts, tech—catered to the youngsters. Senior Declan Stoeckel loves “the relationships between the counselors and the campers” as he continues to stay in touch with his Rwandan peers from back home. Ms. Dorer acknowledges that this continuity pushes the program forward. When the Latin students leave Rwanda, a strong core of peer counselors keep the summer running; it doesn’t end after the scheduled three weeks. “It’s more than just an in and out,” reiterated Ms. Dorer. “The relationships become very personal, very real, and long-lasting.”

From the start of Latin in Rwanda to this year, only a select few of students make it past the competitive application and onto the trip. While Ms. Dorer wishes that she could bring more students, she knows that bigger numbers pose the risk of overwhelming the kids. “Age 11 is when you find out why you’re taking antiretrovirals. You have to explain the HIV status and what it means. That’s an overwhelming thing to have to deal with for the little ones. So, they need a distraction from it, the time to really talk about it, and the space to feel safe. They need to know that it’s not a death sentence when they’ve decided that their life is perhaps over.” For Ms. Dorer, enlisting a tight-knit group of students carefully creates the conversations around a touchy subject.

But aside from expanding the numbers, whether Latin in Rwanda should be open to rising freshman and middle schoolers has brought up debate. Cindy Ramirez, an attendee, doesn’t “think rising freshmen should participate in the Latin in Rwanda program because a lot of people apply, so I think rising juniors and seniors should get priority” while Declan agrees that “barring a few special exceptions, I’m not sure because [freshman or middle schoolers] might not know enough about Latin in Rwanda coming into the Upper School. However, if they really want to go, they should read up on it. If you know a lot, you’re good with kids, and you have a great personality, I’m all for it.”

Right now, the freshman are technically eligible. “But the problem is that we’ve had three times as many people apply as we can take. Sometimes, the things we encounter are very serious which is better for older people to handle. So, while we haven’t closed out freshman, we haven’t taken a freshman in a while,” stated Ms. Dorer. For the future, she has also proposed an additional suggestion: a winter camp. Hopefully, Latin’s South African school would work in conjunction with Latin in Rwanda to sustain a camp during the kids’ five week winter break.

“There is no hot meal program at a school [during winter break] there,” Ms. Dorer continued, “so you don’t get lunch . . . It’s a vicious circle sort of. So, if there can be some place for a couple of weeks [in the winter] where that’s taken care of and they can just be kids. All these extras that we take for granted, that we have, like after school programs. They just don’t have it.”

While Latin in Rwanda has changed in the ten years since Dr. Cohen’s speech, the goal remains the same: bringing resources, love, and warmth to the East African country. But in the same way that Upper School students include Rwandans in the Latin community, the kids of the summer program truly show students what it means to be Rwandan.

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