Rwandan orphans lift La Sierra alumna’s faith
Mar. 5, 2010
By Darla Martin Tucker
From the vehicle’s window Michelle Jacobsen could see the excited children lining the dirt road leading to their orphanage, happily greeting her return. At that moment she realized just how much she had missed each of them and how glad she was to be back in Rwanda.
It was Nov. 28 and Jacobsen, a June graduate of La Sierra University, had been absent from her English-teaching post at the Gakoni orphanage for about a month due to an illness that brought her stateside. She and La Sierra student Emily Gifford had arrived at the compound of brown brick orphanage buildings and a primary school six weeks after graduation, prepared to teach English and hoping for an African adventure. For Jacobsen, the odyssey became a lesson in perseverance and inspired a spiritual commitment.
Jacobsen and Gifford are participating in a year-long missions program through Reach International Inc. in Berrien Springs, Mich. They connected with the organization through La Sierra’s missions office. Jacobsen, a former history and politics major, had envisioned a political career prior to her work in Rwanda. Before enrolling at La Sierra University, she attended Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, in Takoma Park, Md., largely because of the school’s proximity to the intense political scene of Washington D.C.
“I always thought I’d go to law school or do something in peace and conflict studies,” said Jacobsen during a December interview. She originally considered serving in Africa through the U.S. Government’s Peace Corps program, but her parents suggested she work through a Seventh-day Adventist organization. When she heard about the need for volunteers at the Gakoni orphanage in Rwanda, Jacobsen was hooked. “That sounds perfect,” she remembered thinking at the time. “I started praying about it and it seemed like the greatest thing in the world,” she said. “I thought it was going to be an epic adventure.”
The adventure turned out to be an exploration of beliefs, of ability, of commitment. Approximately 75 youngsters live at the orphanage. Nine women, or ‘mothers’ help care for them. Nearby Lake Muhazi serves as the compound’s water supply. During the weeks following her arrival, Jacobsen researched ways the orphanage’s food supply and funding sources could be supplemented with vegetable gardens and chicken farming. She secured donations from an organization for a water pump and acquired water filters. “The kids were drinking water straight out of the lake,” she said. Food, water and medicine top the list of Jacobsen’s concerns for the orphanage, “but there are tons and tons of things they need,” she said. Current projects include work on a new roof and a new multi-purpose room to potentially accommodate worship services and English lessons.On Sabbaths, Jacobsen and the others walk with the children through a banana grove to a church near the orphans’ primary school. The experience of helping others in difficult conditions, in a country still recovering from the horrors of the 1994 genocide, caused Jacobsen to put her political interests on hold and consider international service as a full-time career. “The people are amazing. Everyone is so genuine and incredible,” she said of her Rwandan experience. It’s an adventure, she said, “to know you’re helping these people.”The experience in Rwanda strengthened Jacobsen’s faith and changed her perspective. “I’d always been Adventist but it wasn’t until lately … that things started to change within me,” she said. Jacobsen’s quest, she says, has become “what can I do with the Lord helping me?”
PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University