Emily Golden is a beautiful teenager from Timonium. She is tall and leggy, with long hair the color of thick honey, eyes flecked with the green and brown of autumn grasses, a quick smile, and she sings like an angel. She’s beginning her senior year at G.W. Carver Center for Arts and Technology, a magnet high school in Towson, where she studies vocal performance. ¶ But even with all of her enchantments, Emily scares the dickens out of Rwandan babies. ¶ Riding on a public bus last summer in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, Emily raised her arms to take a baby as it was passed several rows backwards to its mother. Rwandan bus-riding etiquette dictates the mass shuffle of groceries and children both, as Kigali commuters rearrange themselves in the flip-down aisle seats to make way for those angling toward an available back seat.
This baby, now several rows distant from its mother, was handed overhead from person to person, calmly accepting the arms of strangers. But when it laid eyes on Emily, its eyes widened, face crumpled, and it let out a horrified wail of terror.
“Everyone on the bus started laughing,” says Emily, with a rueful smile. “Joseph sitting next to me started laughing, too.”
Joseph Nkundibiza was used to Emily’s milky skin and straight, fair hair attracting the amazed attention and curious hands of young and old Rwandans alike. A university senior, Joseph owes his last six years of education to Emily’s fundraising, which sends him and nine other Rwandan students to school. He will graduate from Kigali Independent University this November.
Since she was 11 years old, Emily, now 17, has raised funds by manning lemonade stands and bake sales, collecting recyclable soda cans, selling handmade bracelets, and writing newsletters requesting donations. She needed $3,000 at first, each year, for the 10 children’s tuitions, and then $4,500 as more of them began to progress to secondary schools and universities.
And she got it, every time.
It was six years ago that Emily first learned about the bleak futures of children living 7,000 miles away in Rwanda—and she was outraged. Emily’s father, Don Golden, a senior vice president at World Relief, already traveling the world working toward eradicating poverty and hunger, supported his daughter’s immediate desire to help.
“Emily, as a child, has seen Don go off and do these projects,” says Lynn Golden, Emily’s mother, of Don’s philanthropic work in Africa. “She’s seen the urgency of it, too, since Don has brought home pictures and reports. It compels her.”
The father-daughter pair decided to create a charity called Kids For Compassion and raise money to educate 10 children. Don recruited a World Relief colleague in Rwanda, Cyprien Nkiriyumwami, to help select children who would most benefit from funds for an education.
Nkiriyumwami combed the local umudugudus (villages) and got directions to a church outside Kigali, where he planned to ask the pastor to recommend children with a drive to learn. He pulled over on a rough road and asked two passersby which way to turn. One was Jacqueline Mbihayimana, and the other was the pastor himself.
Mbihayimana, a widowed Rwandan seamstress, had just finished praying and fasting for three days. She, like so many of her neighbors living in mud huts outside Kigali, has AIDS. She, like so many of her neighbors, will be leaving orphans behind. In addition to Mbihayimana’s three natural children—Alice, Anaclet, and Aline—she is raising her small cousin Denise, whose parents both died of AIDS.
But in 2006, when the disease began to rob Mbihayimana of her energy to sew, and while Nkiriyumwami was wending his way through the neighboring umudugudus and young Emily was upending her piggy banks, Mbihayimana went to her church. She talked to her pastor about her concerns for her four children’s education and the rising tuitions, and for three days she fasted with him and prayed for a solution.
And on her fateful walk back home, peering through a dusty car window to see the driver who needed directions, Mbihayimana secured her children’s futures. Alice, Anaclet, Aline, and Denise became Emily’s first students.
In a Rwandan primary school, Denise’s yearly tuition is only $45. It’s a paltry amount of money by American standards, but in the small umudugudus, it’s a minor fortune. Many families who can scrape together primary school tuition give up when a child begins the more expensive secondary school.
“It’s not hard to find a kid who needs help,” says Emily, who struggles with her emotions when families beg her to please take two more children. Just two more. Just two? “But it’s hard to figure out kids who will make the most of it. If they’re kids that didn’t care or want to learn, then it’s pointless. Kids For Compassion works because there’s just 10 kids that literally have nothing stopping them except a few hundred dollars a year.”
Because of the higher university tuitions, Emily must now raise $12,600 a year to keep all 10 students in school.
But this summer, her 10 students each expressed a desire to take on the education expenses of students of their own as they graduate, effectively replicating Emily’s business model. Alice, who will graduate from the Adventist University of Central Africa with an IT degree in 2013, proposed a Kids For Compassion management information system as her final project, which will track expenses, tuitions, and even school grades for all the students.
“She already has a mockup of the software, and has already presented her thesis to her adviser,” says Don.
Emily, with help from Don’s frequent-flyer miles (and her part-time job at Smoothie King), has funded two summer trips to Rwanda, so that she could stay directly involved with the students and their families. Emily’s younger twin sisters, sophomores at Dulaney High School, have also raised money with their own bracelet and bake sales, and this summer, all three girls visited Rwanda together for the first time.
Joseph’s enormous smile is always what sails right into Emily’s heart when she sees him in Rwanda, and when she and her sisters Skype with him from Timonium. Rather than feeling burdened by his own HIV-positive mother, widowed during the 1994 genocide, and the dependency of his five younger siblings, Joseph feels nothing but gratitude and joy that he will shortly be able to provide for all of them. In addition to his sterling academic record, he also heads his church choir and teaches Sunday school.
“He’s a rock star,” says Don, appreciatively. “He’s amazing.”
Don explains how Joseph’s new earning potential is the lifeline for his extended family, in light of Rwanda’s recent economic boom. In the past 10 years, according to Don, the economy has grown at an annual average of eight percent.
Those with an education are poised to take part in this boom. Don says the wealthier homes become “happily responsible” for extended family members, taking on dependents they can afford. Since Rwandan families first absorbed their country’s genocide orphans in 1994, and continue to absorb AIDS orphans, they are also now making room for dislocated refugees from the Congo—people who once fled their native Rwanda and are recently returning. Don calls the Rwandan people “communally-minded,” and states that families are often made up of the adopted members of three and four other families.
Lynn, who has visited Rwanda twice, concurs that funding an education for one child can make a life-changing difference for many others.
“They are the hope for their family,” says Lynn. “A lot of families have so many adopted children, and they need each other. This one person has the ripple effect of good benefits going out to people in the whole community.”
Emily sums up her thoughts succinctly, in happy teenage parlance.
“It’s literally the coolest thing I have ever been a part of,” she says. “If there is any way I could do this for the rest of my life, I would be so incredibly happy.”
Joseph, even with his smile, has the same relentless drive that Mbihayimana’s four children also have. The same goes for Alex, Pascal, Emmanuel, Anita, and Janviere, the rest of Emily’s students, all handpicked by Cyprien Nkiriyumwami and enthusiastically supported by Emily.
“They are ridiculously hard workers,” emphasizes Emily. Sometimes, she recognizes her own comparatively easy life and feels she didn’t do enough to raise funds or stay in touch with her Rwandan families during this busy school year. Her charity is slated to be officially incorporated as a 501(c)3 this month (with the website, kidsforcompassion.org), and she wishes it had happened earlier.
“It seems like a heavy weight,” says Lynn, who watched Emily struggle last year with SAT preparation, driver’s ed, a college search, and homework, in addition to her fundraising. “She holds the future of these kids, and then these extended families—this ripple effect. What she doesn’t accomplish for them, they don’t accomplish for their family.”
But the photos and blogs that Emily posts on her Tumblr site, during her trips to Rwanda, tell a tale of a young woman rapturously in love with the rolling hills, the plates of maracuja breakfast fruits, the women churning goat milk outside their mud huts with the tin roofs, and the families she adores.
“I can’t explain how much I love it here,” she blogged last summer. She posted photos of a good-naturedly embarrassed Anaclet, who was doused with a bag of flour by his friends in celebration of his nearly perfect marks when he finished secondary school; of a proud Denise sitting at her tiny wooden desk at school; and of Alex’s mother, who spends her days praying for her own children and the five orphans she’s taken in.
“Today I had the best day that anybody ever had,” she wrote. “I have never experienced anyone capable of bringing more joy than these kids. They’re incredible. They are actually my favorite human beings ever.”