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Lunch with Mimi: Carol Falke

by on November 25, 2013 12:43 PM

For the past three years, Carol Falke of State College has been an international volunteer in Rwanda, Africa. Through the nonprofit organization Hope Made Real, she helps support the Urukundo Children’s Home and Learning Center. Not only does Falke help raise funds to build schools in Rwanda, she also connects local organizations and churches to projects, and cultivates classroom-to-classroom partnerships between schools in State College and the Urukundo Learning Center.

Hope Made Real also has a sewing technical center, an agriculture/livestock farming program, an English as a Second Language class for adults, and a new daycare in Rwanda set to open.

In addition, Falke is involved with ZOE Ministry, an orphan-empowerment program that provides grants to communities of orphans to help them become self-sufficient in three years. She and several other local families support a community of more than 80 orphans in Rwanda.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Falke earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and psychology from Valparaiso University in Indiana. She has always had the heart to work in international development and has worked in Laotian refugee camps in Thailand for six weeks in 1980 and traveled seven times to Nicaragua on mission trips.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Falke at The Deli in State College to discuss how she got started with her humanitarian work in Rwanda, what Hope Made Real has done for the past three years, and what she hopes to accomplish in the future for the children she helps in Rwanda.

Mimi: Carol, I’ve known you a long time in a lot of different roles, most of them fundraising. I guess you’ve taken those fundraising skills to a new level. Tell us what made you do it.

Carol: People always ask me how I found Rwanda, and I always like to tell them that it really found me. I didn’t have any intention of working in Africa. I had been working on missions in Nicaragua for seven years, and an opportunity presented itself to help raise funds for a water project in Rwanda. What they needed was churches in the area to work together to raise funds for $15,000 worth of pipes. So, I said, I can do that. I had just retired a month before from the State Theatre.

Mimi: And the opportunity presented itself through your church?

Carol: Yes, through my church, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. The church that actually took the lead on this is Park Forest Village United Methodist Church, which is a small Methodist church. They decided to take the leadership role on it, and then realized they needed some help. So, our church was contacted and I said I can do this. The person I spoke with, Nickie Askov, said we’ve stalled at just under $5,000. I said, “The challenge is on, let’s do it!” Nickie and I spoke to churches and other groups, and within probably four months raised the $15,000 for pipes for the water project. It’s about a mile of pipes that took the water from the base of the mountain up to several holding stations on the mountainside. The woman I’m working with, Mama Arlene Brown, established the Urukundo Children’s Home and is the person who had the vision to have water accessible to 3,000 people in the community. Children and adults were hiking a mile down and carrying the water jugs a mile up the mountain. It’s very safe but it’s very difficult. So, what they did was have holding stations for the water so people could come across the mountain to access the water. After the money was raised, I realized that people had donated to this project and I hadn’t seen it completed. So, I thought it was important for me to go to Rwanda. In October 2011, I went to see what I helped with and make sure that everything was on the up and up.

Mimi: And when you got there, what did you find? What were your impressions?

Carol: First of all, a beautiful country, 8,000- to 9,000-foot elevation, mountainous and rolling hills, lush greenery, beautiful weather, and friendly people. I saw a lot of opportunity where we could make connections and build bridges with the people. A few stats that you might want to know are: Rwanda is a country of 11 million people. Of that, 1.2 million are vulnerable children. Of those 1.2 million, 800,000 are orphans.

Mimi: Now, did you know that when you first started?

Carol: No. I soon realized that many kids, 12- and 13-year-olds are raising younger brothers and sisters. These children are the future of this country, so we can’t just let them be to fend for themselves without providing opportunities.

Mimi: Improve their living standards — food, clothes.

Carol: Well, the first time I went, I connected with Arlene Brown from Williamsport, the woman who established the Urukundo Children’s Home to provide those needs. I actually stay at the children’s home and have met many children that are receiving care.

Mimi: And these are orphans?

Carol: Vulnerable children. Some are orphans and some were street kids. Some of them have relatives, but it’s not a safe place for them, so, we call it a children’s home for vulnerable children. There are 45 children at the home. From the youngest, Jacob, who is four-weeks old, to 16- and 17-year-olds.

Mimi: And do they educate them?

Carol: The role of the children’s home was to make sure the children had a safe haven, food, love, health care, and provided opportunities for them to go to school. The younger ones go to preschool and public school and the older ones go to secondary schools or boarding schools. Mama Arlene actually started the children’s home having traveled back and forth in 1995 to the Congo and throughout Rwanda. She did this in her late 60s. She has lived there full-time since 2006.

Mimi: It’s quite inspiring that you set everything else aside in your life and make room for this mission. It takes a very giving person to give a month’s time as a volunteer and to make a difference in the fashion in which you’re doing it. How do you sustain that?

Carol: I always like to think that our lives can change in a heartbeat. Anything can happen — good or bad — that can transform us. We also need to appreciate what we’re blessed with and fortunate to have. I have a wonderful family, my health, and the financial resources to go to Rwanda. Not everyone has that. I also have the desire and something inside calling me to do it. So, for me, all of those things fell into place. I felt like I could accept what was placed in my life.

Mimi: Well, if my readers could see you, they could see that from head to toe you’re really into this. It’s an inspiration, and, as a result, you can be an inspiration to others. Carol: When I went the first time, I met children and people who have lost everything. So I thought, How did these kids survive and become who they are — loving, hopeful, and faithful kids? When I go, the hearts of these kids are really transforming my life. They’re like my children. Since this is a short-term mission project I know the importance of  keeping these connections throughout the year, to keep building on relationships and sustainable projects. Giving a hand-up, not continuous handouts and aid. Provide opportunities for them to help themselves and others.

Mimi: How do you go to the next step of keeping up with the potential that you’ve created?

Carol: A lot of it started through my church. I realized it was more about kids connecting with kids. I encouraged children from our Sunday School to connect to Rwanda. Two girls, Leah Maines and Mollie Albert, who were 12 at the time, agreed to work with their moms on collecting shoes. These girls were phenomenal. Other kids at church helped raise money to buy pigs, goats, and desks. Now, how can I connect kids beyond my church? I contacted the Penn State Child Care Center at Hort Woods where I met Nina Fellin, a preschool teacher for almost 30 years. She connected her class using the theme “same-same, but different.” What’s the same about us and what’s different? When you go to Rwanda, you think everything is different. But there is also a lot of similarity between kids in the US and kids in Rwanda. Nina’s preschoolers drew pictures and shared their photos. I took this project with me, and materials the kids in Rwanda would need to do the same project as a gift for Nina’s class. We also shared baskets comparing ones made in the US and Rwanda and made booklets showing how each were made. I knew we were connecting kids, but I realized we were also connecting the teachers. Teachers in Rwanda usually have a high school education or a year or two of college. This was a great way for teachers to teach and mentor teachers across the world. Next, I formed a partnership with Lynne Bradley at the Friends Schoolhouse preschool in State College. The theme we used was “a ride on my mother’s back,” comparing how babies are carried. Connections kept coming. Last year, Caroline Simon, a third grader from my church, told her teacher, Linda Margusity, at Mount Nittany Elementary, that she knew about Rwanda and had collected shoes. State College elementary schools study Africa in third and fourth grade. Her teacher asked me to give a presentation comparing life in Rwanda to life in the United States. The kids wrote letters expanding on themes such as what it was like to live on a farm, to be a twin, to play an instrument or a sport, cook their favorite food, or play in the snow, and these would be used as a formal lesson plan. I also asked if they would collect buttons to be used as a teaching tool in math class. And the kids also worked with Candace Smith, the school art teacher, and made an art project using the buttons. Button projects went back and forth between classrooms across the globe.

Mimi: Now, you do this all as a volunteer?

Carol: Yes, all as a volunteer. As the learning part of the Urukundo Children’s Home and Learning Center continues to grow I am recruiting friends who are teachers to help. In April 2012, we completed a three-room preschool currently attended by 140 children. In January, we opened two classes of first graders and a community library. In January 2014, we’ll add two second-grade classes and an art/music room. We hope to continue building, but it’s very tough to raise money for international projects. Each classroom now costs about $20,000, and our goal is to go up to sixth grade. That would mean raising at least $160,000. What’s wonderful about our school is what we can offer — smaller classes, teaching materials, and books. The primary grades in rural public schools usually have one teacher per class of 65 children. There are not enough desks. There are not enough seats for these kids. One child will go in the morning, come home, and their brother or sister would go in the afternoon. They wait for them to come home so they can use their school shoes. So, kids might share shoes and even share a uniform. The parent association at our school makes sure children of extreme poverty and on full scholarship have what they need to succeed. The community works together.

Mimi: Wow! Now, you’ve come back home after a three-week stint in Rwanda. What is your ultimate goal?

Carol: Well, for me it’s finding the funds to build classrooms through sixth grade and to continue building on our technical school. We only have a sewing tech center, but would like to develop into agriculture and cooking. We would like to offer more in the way of technical training that can provide youth with more job opportunities. The future is education. Not always a college education, which is very expensive, but also a technical education. Another goal is to continue to connect children and youth, to connect schools and connect teachers. To help children in our community become more aware of the world. One amazing example is last year I was raising $12,500 for one first-grade classroom. I was $1,000 short of that goal. Haley Justice, a high school student at State High, coordinated “Hearts for Rwanda,” an art show. She helped us finish paying for the classroom in Rwanda by raising over $1,000. Kids helping kids.

Mimi: I’m inspired, and I thank you for sharing it with our readers and me.

Carol: Thank you.

Note: After her chat with Mimi, Falke shared an update. She is working with Mark Smeal and six third- and fourth-grade classes at Houserville Elementary School, and, through Candace Smith, six classes at Easterly Parkway Elementary School. Carol also has been asked to represent Rwanda at Grace Lutheran Preschool and Kindergarten for their annual International Week in February 2014.

To make a donation for the Urukundo School, write a check payable to Hope Made Real. Mail it to: Carol Falke, 246 Chateaux Circle, State College, PA 16803.

Her Blog is cdfalke.blogspot.com.

If you are interested in helping or going to Rwanda to work in the classroom, contact Falke at falkes@verizon.net.

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