WOONSOCKET — A Woonsocket High School group of soon-to-be international ambassadors has reached the halfway point in their efforts to fund a trip-of-a-lifetime for the Class of 2012 members.
The six members of school’s Interact Club and Global Citizenship Program are planning to make a three-week-long visit to Rwanda in February to learn first-hand how that country is recovering from its devastating genocide of 1994.
Jason Marzini, a Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center digital media teacher and Interact Club advisor, expects the trip to be a lesson in the power of change that the students can bring home to their own community.
“The country has grown beyond anyone’s belief since the genocide ended,” Marzini said. The Rwanda of today is discussed regularly in the news for its efforts to highlight the horrors of genocide and move past the tragic events of 1994. “The World Bank is investing in Rwanda and they have built strong ties with other nations to improve their economy,” he said.
Kory Nordby, one of the seniors expected to make the trip, said he believes it will give the participating students “a whole new perspective on life.”
Woonsocket High School takes pride in serving a culturally-diverse student body that can claim ethnic links to many countries around the world, but the trip to Rwanda may result in a bit of culture shocks for the travelers despite that diversity, according to Nordby.
“It will teach us that the things we find to be important, electronic devices and brand-name clothes don’t matter there,” he said. The study work the group has already put in on Rwanda gave them examples of how hard its people must work to earn a living, he said.
“We read about one group of ladies that worked in the hills that didn’t even have shoes,” he said.
The students will find themselves out of their normal comfort zones but will learn from that experience as well, according to Justina Pietrus, another of the seniors.
“I can’t predict how it will hit me because I don’t know yet,” she said. “But I know there are things that I take for granted that they won’t see in their lifetimes,” she said. “It is going to be an experience I will never forget.”
The students have set a goal of raising $18,000 to make the trip and by last Friday had collected about half of that amount through fundraising events like a recent breakfast at the Par-x Club and donations from the community.
The Woonsocket Rotary Club which is a partner in the Interact Club gave the group its biggest contribution, $6,000, Marzini said. The students are now working on holding a spaghetti dinner as their next fundraiser.
The Interact Club’s decision to put the trip together stems from a visit a survivor of the Rwandan ethnic genocide made to Woonsocket last year.
Valentina Iribagiza, who also calls herself Valentine, was just 13 when the killing broke out Rwanda and the ethnic Tutsis in her village gathered in a church where they thought they would be safe. Ethnic Hutu militia members began to kill the Tutsis villagers with machetes, clubs, guns, and hand grenades at the church as an anti-Tutsis frenzy spread through countryside. Iribagiza suffered machete wounds to her head and right hand and hid among her dead family members and friends while covered in blood to survive.
A coalition of outside military forces eventually forced the radical Hutu’s out of Rwanda but not before more than 800,000 of Iribagiza’s ethnic countrymen had been murdered the blood rage.
The local program featuring Iribagiza’s appearance on stage in the high school auditorium was arranged with the help of Steve Rand, a teacher at the Hardwood Union High School in Waterbury, Vt. Hardwood Union runs a similar Global Citizenship Program and has made a number of student trips to Rwanda with the help of a Rwanda-based student educational experience group.
The trips include tours of Rwanda genocide sites, visits to orphanages and schools, and home-stays with survivors of the violence.
The students at Woonsocket High planning to make the trip went to Vermont to meet students at Hardwood Union who will also be going along to Rwanda in February.
The local students will also be hosting the Vermont students at their school before the trip so they can experience life in a large urban high school, Marzini said.
As part of their work on the Rwanda project, the Woonsocket High School seniors will be earning school credits in digital media and sociology, according to Caroline Doherty, expanded learning opportunities coordinator for the high school and one of the trip’s four chaperones.
“I think it is an incredible opportunity for the students,” Doherty said while noting they have already begun getting more involved in their community. The group last week made an appearance before the School Committee, which has already approved the trip, to update the panel on their progress in completely final plans. They are also planning for talks before other student groups in the city upon their return.
“Experiencing a culture so dramatically different from their own culture can only have a positive impact on their world view,” Doherty said of the students.
Olivia Asgarian, one of the seniors working to go on the trip, said she is sure her classmates will be exhausted when they land in Rwanda after an expected 23-hour airplane trip. “We will all be really tired and want to sleep but being there will be so remarkable, so powerful, so out of our element we won’t be able to sleep,” she said.
“It will definitely teach us who we are and what we are capable of doing,” she said.
The students scheduled to make the trip are Kory Nordby, Melinda Rice, Justyna Pietrus, Michaela Bartholomy, Olivia Asgarian, and Nicole Coutu. The chaperones will be Marzini, Doherty, Tony Cosentino of the history department, and Allen.
For more information on helping the students with their trip call the Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center at 767-4660.