It was estimated that 800,000 Rwandans were killed as the result of the Rwandan genocide in 1994. This devastation left a lasting impact on Rwanda and the communities throughout the country.
Many children became orphans, left to fend for themselves.
Clare Effiong, a former diplomat at the United Nations, took a trip to Rwanda in 2000. The year prior, she founded the 501 (c)(3) nonprofit Esther's Aid based in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Her trip to Rwanda changed everything.
Although Effiong, affectionately referred to as "Mama Clare," wasn't called to go to Rwanda, Rwanda immediately became her calling.
In 1994 in Rwanda, then-President Juvénal Habryarimana, a member of the Hutu ethnic majority, was on a plane when it was shot down. The tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis, the largest minority group, led to months of bloodshed and killings where Tutsis were targeted. Many were killed and thousands of Tutsi women were taken and kept as sex slaves, the BBC reported.
Seeing firsthand the heartbreaking impact of the genocide and the many children left on the street malnourished and exposed to health risks such as HIV/AIDS, Effiong was moved to extend her focus from New York to Rwanda.
With the mission "We Care, We Train, We Empower," Esther's Aid focuses on the following initiatives:
"We care for the poor, the outcast, the orphan, and the widow, by compassionate intervention and protection from exploitation, abuse, sex trafficking, and prostitution.
We train them to succeed by providing education, skills development, and a positive vision for a productive and sustainable future.
We empower them by instilling hope, confidence, dignity, and self respect."
Esther's Aid provides a number of programs and educational services in Rwanda including a 16-month culinary, catering and hospitality program, business management and entrepreneurship training and job training and placement.
The organization's efforts have been met with incredible success as the children grow more confident with more outlets to opportunities.
One success story even led to Harvard University.
Justus Uwayesu was just eight years old when Effiong found him living in the garbage dump that he and other orphans rummaged through in desperation to survive.
Colleen Lehane, the Administrative Director for Esther's Aid, says Uwayesu told Effiong that he wanted to go to school upon their first interaction.
Lehane, who has been with Esther's Aid since nearly the beginning, was impressed with Uwayesu's determination to go to school.
"Someone at a young age who knew that education was a way out of poverty—he is certainly a remarkable success," she told A Plus.
Uwayesu is now one year in at Harvard University. His journey to Harvard included learning English, French, Swahili and Lingala as a student in Rwanda, The New York Times reported. With the help of Effiong and Esther's Aid, Uwayesu focused on his schooling and work at the orphanage. He applied for and landed a spot in the Bridge2Rwanda scholars program that led to his full-scholarship at Harvard.
He had this to say of his life before Esther's Aid:
"It was a really dark time, because I couldn't see a future," he told The New York Times. "I couldn't see how life could be better, or how I could come out of that."
Uwayesu is grateful to Effiong and Esther's Aid for the opportunity for a new life.
"My life changed because of her," he said.
Uwayesu has certainly had success but as Lehane notes, he is not the only Esther's Aid success story.
"He is not our only success," Lehane told A Plus. "I think that all of those children that Clare has touched has been fired [up] by the opportunities Esther's Aid has provided. Every year we graduate a significant class from the programs we hold."
Many children move on to hold self-sustaining careers in their communities in Rwanda or attend university in either Rwanda or abroad.
Esther's Aid has turned around the lives for many children. But they keep on striving.
The organization has taken on a project they call "The Village of Peace." Esther's Aid acquired the site in 2010 in Kinyinya, Rwanda. The Village of Peace "will be a permanent campus for all educational and related activities."
Aimed to be a self-sustaining facility that generates income through a catering hall, sale of jewelry, baked goods and much more — Esther's Aid is still in the process of building The Village of Peace and seeking funding to do so. Information and donations for Esther's Aid's initiatives can be found here.