Dear GlobalEd Leadership Reader,
Here’s a blog from University of San Diego Kroc School graduate student, Cassandra Barrett, in which she discusses an NGO located in Kigali Rwanda. Cassie spent time at Sheer Love last January.
UNICEF estimates there are more than 7,000 children living on the streets of Rwanda (OCHA Relief Web, 2021). Street children do not have access to education and live a life of uncertainty often filled with malnutrition, disease, and judgment. Street children in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali risk being locked up and detained in “transit” centers with no access to education and abhorrent conditions including not enough food and water (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Sheer Love Rwanda is a non-profit organization that focuses on the reintegration of street children through education and community engagement. In this post, we’ll discuss Sheer Love’s approach to supporting street children and the importance of community engagement in youth development. We’ll also meet Valentine, one of the 44 children currently enrolled in the Sheer Love program, and learn how she ended up on the street and the positive impact that Sheer Love has had on her and her family.
Sheer Love Rwanda aims to provide street children with opportunities to reach their potential by providing them with tools and resources for success, including access to education and community integration. Sheer Love headquarters is a safe space for children that is equipped with a library, computer room, private teacher, and dedicated time for community building through activities, games, songs, and restorative circles. Sheer Love works with 44 children, ranging from 6-18 years old. Each child in the program has a unique story of how they ended up on the streets and how the trajectory of their life changed once they entered the supportive environment of Sheer Love. Sheer Love is in constant communication with each child’s school to ensure that they are present for class and receiving passing marks. If the child is struggling with attendance or a classroom subject, they work with the child to create a success plan. Sheer Love also works directly with each family to ensure the children are supported in all aspects of their lives.
I had the opportunity to visit sheer love in January of 2023. As soon as I entered the gates, there was an instant sense of compassion, community, and gratitude. I worked with the Sheer Love team for two weeks during the school holidays. Although the students were on a vacation from school, they arrived at Sheer Love headquarters every morning ready to study and excited to learn.
Some students start the day in the library reading books while others are in the computer lab practicing their typing skills. Every afternoon, following their English classes with the organization’s English teacher, there is intentional time for community building through games. The children taught me an interactive game called Wall, which is similar to rock, paper, scissors, but has two teams and they win depending on their choice of a wall, arrow, or rabbit. Most days end with a community circle that provides every participant the opportunity to share their thoughts and highlights of the day. It is evident that Sheer Love is a family; they support each other and provide a space for everyone to be seen, heard, and appreciated.
Why is Community Engagement Important?
Family participation in children’s education corresponds with academic achievement and positive social emotional learning (Fantuzzo et al, 2013). According to Tony Townsend (2023), who has been a professor of educational leadership in Australia, the United States and Scotland, when it comes to a child’s learning, family engagement and involvement are almost as important as the quality and effectiveness of a school. Sheer Love works directly with schools, families, and the community because it realizes that youth development does not have a starting and stopping point; children need support in all areas of life.
Alexis Amani Simbayobewe, the organization’s founder, grew up spending a significant portion of his childhood living on the streets and has made it his mission to prevent children from experiencing the hardships he went through. Amani recognizes the importance of family engagement and believes that “families play a role in their children’s life everyday, so engaging them helps to make sure there is someone seeing what the child is doing.”
More than 95% of the parents in Sheer Love Rwanda did not have the opportunity to attend school. Sheer Love Rwanda has a Family Empowerment program, which supports the parents of the enrolled children in gaining skills, including financial literacy, family planning, and conflict management. The Family Empowerment program also gives parents the opportunity to start their own business with a savings group where each participant sets a financial goal and learns how to save and invest money. Amani stated that, “our programs also support parents to heal their emotions and trauma related to their past experience and poverty, which gives a good environment to the children.”
Valentine is 11 years old and one of the 44 children enrolled in the Sheer Love initiative. Valentine’s mother, Anita, gave birth to Valentine at 19 years old. She was desperate for money and turned to sex work in order to pay the bills. Valentine started living on the streets due to her mother’s constant absence. When first joining Sheer Love, Valentine was very shy and did not know how to fully understand or process her emotions.
Valentine and her mother have been with the program for three years now, and their lives have dramatically changed. Anita has a successful business selling fruits in the neighborhood. Amani says that “she is among the happiest parents and promises to become a strong woman and mother to the family.” Valentine is one of the top students in her class and wants to become a doctor when she’s older. Her favorite subject is social studies and she loves reading and playing hopscotch with her friends. Valentine’s smile is contagious, and when I met her, it was clear that she was a leader. She was one of the first children to greet me, and she made sure to teach me the rules to every game we played. Sheer Love, Anita, and Valentine are currently working on getting Valentine’s father involved in her life even though he does not live with Anita, Valentine, and her younger sister.
If you would like to learn more about Sheer Love and the 44 children enrolled in the program, you can visit their website or follow them on Instagram or Facebook. Sheer Love accepts donations and welcomes volunteers to visit them in Kigali, Rwanda. If you would like to get in contact with the organization’s founder, Amani, you can send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet Cassandra: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cassandrabarrett/
Fantuzzo, J., Gadsden, V., Li, F., Sproul, F., McDermott, P., Hightower, D., & Minney, A. (2013). Multiple dimensions of family engagement in early childhood education: Evidence for a short form of the Family Involvement Questionnaire. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(4), 734–742. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.001
Human Rights Watch. (2020). Interview: Rwanda’s Street Children Locked up, Abused | Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/27/interview-rwandas-street-children-locked-abused
OCHA Relief Web. (2021, May 6). Rwanda: Street children find education, shelter and hope – Rwanda | ReliefWeb. https://reliefweb.int/report/rwanda/rwanda-street-children-find-education-shelter-and-hope
Simbayobewe, A. (2023). Interview with Alexis Amani Simbayobewe [Personal communication]
Townsend, T. (2023). Interview with Tony Townsend [Personal communication]