WOONSOCKET — When the seniors in Woonsocket High School's Global Citizen Project found out they needed a quick down payment on a discount plane ticket to the African nation of Rwanda, strange things started happening.
"I sold one of my cars to pay for this trip," says Matt Brennan.
"My parents took a payday loan," says Camelia Niles.
"I took money out of my college fund," another says.
Depending on who's counting, up to a million Rwandans — a fifth of the tiny nation's people — were massacred in 1994 in one of the grisliest genocides of modern times. The chance to see first-hand how a nation heals the political, social and physical wounds of such unfathomable strife has prompted these students to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure they get on that Ethiopian Airlines jet next month.
They've dunned aunts, uncles and friends for money; sold Slim Jim sausages in school corridors; and cupped tin cans at the entryways of local supermarkets, begging patrons for spare change in a practice that's gained the odd moniker, "canning."
"I've seen checks come in from dentists' offices," says Leonora Hughes, who's helping organize the trip as director of the WHS Global Citizen Project. "Everyone's made substantial sacrifices to make this trip."
In addition to three adult chaperones, eight students will be making the trip, including Brennan, Niles, Samantha Tondreau, Andrea Moyen, Brianna Tavares, Christine Thompson, Nicholas Bousquet and Troy Witter, all 17-year-old seniors.
And they need a collective $30,000 or so to do it. That includes not just round-trip airfare, but money for certain charitable initiatives, including the purchase of feminine hygiene
products for poor Rwandan schoolgirls, anti-malaria mosquito nets for a boy's orphanage, and a small contribution for the schooling of two Rwandan children.
The funds don't cover the costs of the adult chaperones, including Hughes, Teacher Assistant Renee Ciambrone and Kristen Allen, president of the Woonsocket Chapter of Rotary Club International, a major backer of the Global Citizen Project. They had to do a little fundraising of their own to finance the three-week trip.
With the city gripped in a phase of epic fiscal austerity, the Woonsocket School Committee approved the trip earlier this year, but members told Hughes there was no money to cover substitutes while school personnel were gone. The shortfall comes to about $1,000, which she'll have to come up with on her own, according to Hughes, a hospitality instructor at the Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Center.
As the departure date approaches on March 30, several key fundraisers are scheduled in the coming weeks, including a beer and dynamite event at the Elks Club on Feb. 15; a pasta dinner at St. Agatha's Church on Feb. 23; and dinner at River Falls Restaurant, March 1.
"We've raised about half of what we need so far," says Hughes. "Now we need to raise the next $15,000, and that's what these fundraisers are all about."
This is actually the second group of students from Woonsocket to travel to Rwanda in as many years as ambassadors of goodwill and catalysts for national healing. It's all modeled after a program that's been in effect for years at Harwood Union High School in Vermont.
It trickled down to Woonsocket High School through Digital Media Instructor Jason Marzini, who is friendly with an instructor from Harwood Union, Steve Rand, the founder of the program, according to Hughes.
But Woonsocket students had been prepping for the trip with classroom studies on Rwanda for some time, which is readily apparent from a brief chat with the group of Rwandan-bound seniors They can rattle off in impressive detail the seminal events of the Rwandan genocide (the assassination of President Juvenal Habyariman) or the the key tribal clans involved the so-called "ethnic cleansing" (Hutu and Tutsi) as quickly as fans of the New England Patriots can tell you Tom Brady is a quarterback.
The classroom stuff culminated with a special assembly last year featuring Valentina Irabagiza, a Rwanda genocide survivor whose fingers were hacked off when she was just nine years old. Students from Harwood Union also participated in the assembly.
"The impact was immediately perceivable," Marzini wrote in a fundraising letter to the American Federation of Teachers. "Our students showed the utmost respect, were genuinely empathetic and displayed a desire for deeper knowledge of the subject. Students from both schools sat together with Valentina during lunch, sharing stories an answering questions...
THE SAGA of the Rwandan genocide is well known now, thanks in no small part to the award-winning Hollywood film, "Hotel Rwanda." Longstanding ethnic rivalries encouraged by European colonists exploded in 1994 after the Hutu president's plane exploded in mid-air. The Hutus blamed the Tutsis, but the Tutsis theorized that the Hutus themselves did it to justify war on their rivals.
In the Congolese nation roughly the size of Maryland, Tutsis were slain wholesale. Human Rights Watch estimates the death toll at 500,000, though other international overseers peg the figure closer to a million. It wasn't just the scale of the slaughter, but the pace and the manner of death that were so horrific: it all took place in about a hundred days, and the victims, many of them women and children, were brutally murdered, if not hideously maimed, with primitive machetes.
"It's been emotionally draining just to learn about it," says Troy Witter, "but there's a lesson to be learned from it."
More than one of the Rwanda-bound students are curious to see just how it's possible for Hutus and Tutsis to now live peaceably alongside each other under the post-genocide policy of national reconciliation. They'll hear much about that, no doubt, from the host families with whom they'll be residing during their stay in Kigali, the nation's capital.
"I don't think I'd be able to forgive someone if I was in that situation," says Nick Bousquet. "But it's such an unfathomable situation it's hard to say what I'd do."
In addition to soaking up the living history of their host families, the students will visit "genocide sites," museums, orphanages and schools.
"It's a humanitarian field study to provide aid to those in poverty, and they'll also be earning school credits as we connect with people internationally," says Hughes.
The students have already learned many lessons outside the realm of typical classroom experience as a result of planning, organizing and raising money to make the trip. One unexpected chapter: physical pain.
Going to Rwanda, it turns out, means getting immunized ahead of time for an assortment of exotic diseases.
The Yellow Fever shot was the worst, says Samantha Tondreau, peeling back her shirtsleeve to reveal a bruise where the hypodermic went in nearly a week earlier.
"It hurts so bad," she said. "They have to get it through all the layers of your muscle."
For more information about how to donate or specifics about the upcoming fundraisers mentioned in this story, contact Leonora Hughes at email@example.com .