Oak Park’s Ascension School’s Lenten Project will collect money this year for the Noel Orphanage in Gisenyi, Rwanda. Eighth-grade language arts teacher Katrina Vainisi has visited the orphanage twice. She was inspired to visit after teaching the Illinois state-mandated 8th grade curriculum on genocide for many years. Part of that curriculum included the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, one hundred days in which 800,000 people were murdered—mostly by their own neighbors—in violence between two ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi.

“All of the orphans over 16 lost their parents to genocide,” said Vainisi. The Noel orphanage shelters 600 children between the ages of 3-days and 21-years old.

Her first trip was to help develop an English language curriculum for the orphanage school.

 “After spending weeks getting to know the kids I was teaching, I started to feel very responsible for them.  And while I wished I could take all 600 home, I felt a deep connection with the older ‘kids,’” she wrote in a letter to the school. 

“They are the kids whose ages were between 16 and 25 who literally have no one to call their own. Kids who have no one in their family left because of the genocide.  They are kids who got in trouble every night for crowding around one single twin bed in the dormitory after ‘lights out’ studying the dictionary I gave them.  Kids who could feel very, very sorry for themselves but who would greet me every morning with, ‘Mummy today is going to be great day!!’”

“By my last day, I knew that every kid there had a piece of my heart, but a few had an enormous piece.  I wondered how I could have four of my own children—already an extremely full life—and still have room in my heart for more.  And as I sat tear-stained on my last day I realized–God always makes room in your heart for more.  And then I told them, ‘Yes, I will come back.’”    

On her second trip, in Nov. 2011 she brought three suitcases of donations from the students of Ascension– baby clothes, medicine, toothbrushes, school supplies and prescription glasses. 

“The most welcomed of all donations were the prescription glasses.  I was able to travel, while I was there, to an extremely remote village outside of Kibuye.  Cars and motorcycles cannot even reach this village.  As I tried to fit the people in the village for the right prescription, the look on their faces when they could “see,” is a memory I will never forget.”

The Ascension Lenten Project, which is in its 13th year, has collected more than $100,000 for specific charitable organizations. Children of the school, parishioners and others raise money through fundraisers and donations during the 40 days of Lent and into the Easter season. Last year the program raised $16,000 for a Guatemalan organization called Project Hope.

“Because I am so close with so many people who live at Noel, we will really be able to see the work in progress” she said.  “We will really be able to see how the money is being spent.  Our goal is to help the children with their immediate needs of food and clothing.  There are areas in the orphanage that are in desperate need of repair that we can help fix and establish scholarships for students to attend local schools.”

“I get to tell my school about how they can raise a little money, knowing they will help so much.  Mother Teresa once said, ‘Not all of us can do great things.  But we can do small things with great love.’  And if there is love and faith, great things can be accomplished.”
Donations can be made to the 2012 Ascension Lenten project here: https://ascensionschool.ejoinme.org/MyPages/SupportAscensionParish/tabid/173668/Default.aspx

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