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Chris Rosenblum | Park Forest woman helps create connections between U.S., Rwanda

Carol Falke visits students in the Urukundo Home for Children and Learning Center in the rural Muhanga District in central Rwanda this year. Falke, a Park Forest resident, is organizing the Art for Rwanda benefit sale and exhibit Oct. 4 at Park Forest Village United Methodist Church to build third-grade classrooms at the school.
Carol Falke visits students in the Urukundo Home for Children and Learning Center in the rural Muhanga District in central Rwanda this year. Falke, a Park Forest resident, is organizing the Art for Rwanda benefit sale and exhibit Oct. 4 at Park Forest Village United Methodist Church to build third-grade classrooms at the school. Photo provided

These days, Carol Falke sees herself fulfilling an important role.

“I always feel like I’m a connector of people,” she said.

The Park Forest resident has plenty of experience serving as a bridge between her native country and Rwanda, a place dear to her heart.

She has brought English instruction workbooks made by local schoolchildren to their counterparts at the Urukundo Home for Children and Learning Center in the rural Muhanga District of central Rwanda.

In Centre County preschools and schools, Falke has given presentations about Rwandan society and culture. She works with the classes to create the language books, and last year collaborated with a high school student on a senior year project that perfectly symbolized her mission.

Wooden blocks paired artwork drawn within heart-shaped borders by both Rwandan youth and children from St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Falke’s church. The Hearts for Rwanda exhibit and sale raised $1,157 for the Urukundo students — just one of Falke’s cross-cultural benefit efforts bringing together community residents.

She has another one brewing.

On Oct. 4, the Art for Rwanda art sale and cultural festival will feature art from more than 50 artists in a variety of media, as well as dozens of traditional handwoven Rwandan baskets and handbags, aprons and placemats sewn at Urukundo’s sewing center.

But from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the Park Forest Village United Methodist Church will become more than a colorful gallery and emporium.

It’ll temporarily be a slice of a distant land.

African drumming demonstrations and dancing by Rwandans dressed in traditional garb are planned. Centre County Caterers is bringing not only sandwiches and salads for purchase, but also East African-style dishes for free samples.

For young visitors, the “Everything Rwanda” interactive area will include art by Rwandan children, Rwandan musical instruments, displays about Urukundo and one unique art project. A local artist, Anne Pelikan, made a 6-foot-wide outline of Africa in which children can make a collage by filling in the continent with pieces of paper containing messages and drawings.

“They can do whatever they want,” said Falke, who will bring the collage to the Urukundo students. “That will be very fun.”

All proceeds from the art, crafts and food sales will help build and furnish third-grade classrooms at the Urukundo School. Started in 2010 for preschool to second grade, it includes a library and teaches English, math, music, dance, art and science and other subjects to about 300 children.

Falke, the mother of two grown daughters, feels a strong connection to the Rwandan students and teachers. She made her first trip in 2010, and has since been back three times, the last visit in March for a month.

“These are my kids in Rwanda,” she said. “I’m coming from the stance that I want them to have the best experience going to school.”

She’s not a teacher, but rather a former marketer and development specialist drawing on her professional talents and a deep-seated humanitarian streak in her retirement.

Before Rwanda, Falke went on mission trips to Nicaragua, satisfying a lifelong interest in international charity.

She was looking for another overseas opportunity when she learned about a Williamsport woman, Arlene Brown, through the Park Forest Village United Methodist Church.

Brown, a former nurse now 83 and known as “Mama Arlene,” began her work in Rwanda in 1996 in a refugee camp after the apocalyptic genocide. With her charitable organization, Hope Made Real, she established the Urukundo Home — a haven for orphans, abandoned babies and street youth — in 2006, two years after moving to the country to work with nonprofits for children.

Today, her home shelters 51 children as young as 2 months up to 19-year-olds.

Falke initially was drawn to a Hope Made Real water project.

“This prospect found me,” she said. “I was looking for the next step.”

She quickly fell in love with Rwanda, its people and the Urukundo community. On her first trip, she brought 100 pounds of supplies to the sewing center, where young women learn on old-fashioned treadle machines to become sewing trainers.

In addition, the center offers English classes for adults and children; a hands-on, self-supporting demonstration farm to teach agriculture to students and local farmers; and a dental technical school where local dentists serve as volunteer instructors.

“We’re really empowering people to do more,” Falke said.

Nearly all the teachers and staff are Rwandans, a key, Falke said, to long-lasting social change and a rosier future.

“They don’t need the people. They need the financing,” she said. “That’s what we’d rather do, so it’s Rwandans helping Rwandans.”

On her side of the world, she does what she can, marshaling her neighbors and friends for events such as Art for Rwanda, bringing them and their skills together for a common cause, making connections.

Every time she steps into a classroom, she’s a link from one society to another, from one set of smiling, young faces to others thousands of miles away.

“Everything I do, I try to make sure there’s a way for kids to be connected,” she said.

“It’s not just about raising funds. It’s about raising awareness and having kids learn about a new culture.”

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