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Seeing the results of child's sponsorship in Rwanda gratifying

Kirsten Blake, special to NBA.com
POSTED: Sep 3, 2012 4:42 PM ET
UPDATED: Sep 4, 2012 10:45 AM ET

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Kristen and Steve Blake with the Rwandan child they sponsor, Divine.

I'm Kristen Blake, and my husband, Steve, is a point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. I've been asked by David Aldridge to share about our recent trip to Rwanda.

Many years ago Pastor Charles Buregeya, founder of Africa New Life Ministries, came to speak at our church in Portland, where we live in the offseason. Pastor Buregeya is a native of Rwanda and his ministry aids in the rebuilding of a country devastated by genocide. He brought bios of children from Rwanda waiting for sponsors, and Steve and I signed up to sponsor a little girl named Divine. For years our family wrote and received letters, sent gifts, watched short videos of our sponsored child, and faithfully sent our money, each time hoping it made a difference.

Last year we were asked if we might like to go with the next team to Africa and meet our child. Steve and I began to contemplate the idea. There were so many questions and concerns ranging from adding more travel to Steve's already packed schedule, to leaving our children for so long since I have never left them for more than a few days. At first we dismissed the idea, but it wouldn't go away and ultimately, we knew we needed to go.

We traveled with a team of 30 wonderful people from our church and other local churches, and after several days of airports, planes and baggage, we finally arrived at our new home away from home, the Africa New Life guesthouse.

Each morning Steve and I got up around 5 to head to the gym and workout in time for team breakfast at 7:30. Steve almost never takes more than a day off and this trip was to be no different. On this particular morning, we headed to a nearby covered stadium for ball handling and shooting. Someone forgot to turn the lights on so it was nice and dark. My rebounding skills are not as good in the dark, but Steve still shot great. After breakfast our first day was spent at the Dream Center, the national headquarters for Africa New Life in Rwanda. In the halls of the Dream Center a poster hangs of a young Rwandan girl dancing with the words "Let every child dream," describing the vision for the Dream Center-to create opportunity so that every person in Rwanda can hope to achieve their dreams. After touring all of Africa New Life's programs a realization began to set in that even though we live half way across the world, we can be part of the hopes and dreams of Rwanda's rebirth and growth through our support.

After our tour of the Dream Center, we played outside with the Dream Boys. These are young boys forced to live on the streets, but because of sponsorship they are now able to enter a rehabilitation program, receive mentorship, shoes, and food and help getting them off the streets and into safe, healthy environments where they can thrive.

Our team brought basketballs and soccer balls to hand out throughout the trip and it was here with the Dream Boys that the first ball was brought out. At first the boys played soccer among themselves, but slowly our team started to trickle into the game. Steve joined the kids in the hot Rwandan sun and showed off his (annoyingly good) soccer skills while I photographed from the sidelines and played with other children. Dripping sweat, Steve finally took a break and we sat together on the sidelines and watched them play. In that moment we reflected on how these happy kids playing soccer were once living on the streets, struggling to survive and find food with many hooked on drugs to ease the hunger pains. It was another moment of awakening of the hope child sponsorship provides.

The next day we woke for yet another early workout. After shooting at the arena we headed to a local hotel to lift weights then it was back to the guest house to start our day. We headed to Africa New Life's Kayonza campus where we met our sponsored child. In the morning we started on projects around campus. Steve and the men repainted the orphanage our church built several years ago. Teenagers in our group played with the children, others rehabilitated the library, and myself and a few others made "Brown Bear, Brown Bear" books with about 50 sponsored children. Before leaving the states, we had packed suitcases full of supplies. Many of the children had never seen "arts and crafts," and it was fun watching their faces light up. I loved returning to campus several days later to see the children running around playing and clutching their books. Many have no possessions beyond the clothes on their backs and it was heart warming to see how much they treasured their new books we had made together.

That afternoon Steve, myself, and Divine went to visit her grandmother's home where Divine lived before our sponsorship moved her into an orphanage. Both of Divine's parents passed away when she was young and her grandmother's poor health made it too difficult for her to care for Divine. The home was a mud structure about 8 feet x 8 feet and Steve (who's 6'3'') had to duck just to fit through the door. There were no beds, no tables, no bathroom; none of the modern conveniences we take for granted every day. Living in the orphanage, Divine attends the top school in Rwanda, has health insurance, eats three meals a day, has clothes and shoes, has running water, toilets, and showers, and sleeps in a bed, not on a hard floor. This striking before and after contrast was yet another reminder for us of the value of our sponsorship.

Sunday we attended church at the Dream Center in the morning and went to a genocide memorial in the afternoon. The memorial was terribly difficult to see. It was more graphic than I was expecting and the atrocities sent shivers down my spine. Over the course of 100 days in 1994, one million people were slaughtered, and countless others were forced out of their homes, orphaned, and mutilated. An estimated 500,000 women were raped and 67 percent of these women become infected with AIDs as a result. Every day another child is orphaned because their parents die from the virus. Almost everyone you meet is affected: emotionally, physically, spiritually, and materially. It was difficult to see the pain of those we had befriended along our trip in such harsh reality at the memorial that day.

Monday started with another stadium workout. The nets weren't up and it was quite dark , so Steve did a lot of ball-handling drills. Then we returned to the Kayonza campus. Some finished projects we had started the other day while others went on house visits, as Steve and I had done with Divine. I was able to spend the entire day with Divine while Steve alternated between painting and joining us.

Divine was very shy at first, but opened up to me as we colored, played Frisbee, did gymnastics, sang songs, and read books. We bonded in a way I didn't know was possible in a few days. She was very proud of us and excitedly introduced us, her sponsors, to everyone we encountered. Sweet Divine had no idea Steve played basketball, nor did she care. Right before we left someone told her he plays basketball in the USA. She just shrugged, confused as to why this was supposed to be important information. She didn't care what Steve did, or who he was beyond knowing we have changed her life and because of this, she has hope for her future.

Leaving Divine that day was incredibly difficult. Divine cried nonstop because she didn't want me to go. The staff told me to be happy, for now Divine will carry Steve and I in her heart always, knowing she is deeply loved and cared for and matters to someone. Steve and I both feel so blessed to be able to help her through our sponsorship and we can't wait for the day we can return and see her again.

Tuesday and Wednesday, Steve and I were not together for the majority of the day. There were many on our team who were high school or college basketball players and coaches so the basketball half of our team went to the stadium for the day and I focused on home visits with the other half of our team. The first day Steve worked with the Pebbles, a newly formed team of Christian basketball players with a mission to travel Rwanda playing basketball and sharing the love of Christ. Steve wasn't sure what to expect in terms of basketball skills since they were a newly formed team with a new coach but he was pleasantly surprised by their strong work ethic. The Pebbles paid close attention to every instruction and even during water breaks; they continued to work hard on the sidelines. However, Steve and the team beat them in a blow out when they played each other that night. It was a long day of basketball and Steve was tired when he returned, but the next day, they headed back to the stadium.

Wednesday, Steve and the basketball portion of our team expected around 30 kids for a clinic but 150 showed up. After reworking their original agenda, they put together a wonderful event for these children and worked with them all day. Basketball is a newer sport to Rwanda and the children were eager to learn, much like the Pebbles the day before. That night the Pebbles, joined by Steve and several of our team members faced the Rwandan National Team, KBC. Steve and a Pebbles player, Lionel, called "Lion," had great on-court chemistry. Lion knew how to anticipate Steve's every move and the two of them really ran the floor. Lion ended up with 29 points, Steve with 27. It was a fun game to watch, and the Pebbles won by a large margin.

Meanwhile, I had several moving home visits before our team rejoined to watch that Wednesday night game. Each visit started out similar, but never ended the same, with new miracles at every turn. Each began with a long bus ride on very dusty, bumpy dirt roads, at the end of which you were sufficiently car sick; then evolved into a long hike through the brush; and ended at a small bare mud structure of some sort. We received so many heart-warming reactions once we arrived. One older brother of a sponsored child kept a picture of the sponsor in his pocket with her letter announcing her upcoming visit and he was just elated to meet her. Another family of a sponsored child insisted we take a gift as a token of their appreciation for changing their daughter's life, and proceeded to hand us a rabbit, aptly named "Gift." One woman told us she felt forgotten, and unloved, and had prayed that God would show his love is real, and there we were, at her home, coming to show His love and tell her we cared. We had unknowingly answered her prayers. There are not words to describe the looks of thankfulness in the eyes of these families, but it is a feeling I will never forget. For all who receive the gift of sponsorship, their lives are changed from a hopeless, dire situation, to a situation where there is hope and a light at the end of a tunnel.

Thursday was time to go home. We returned back to the USA forever changed, and grateful for this humbling opportunity. Rwandans are a truly wonderful people full of love, hope, kindness, and generosity and Steve and I made many new Rwandan friends. Regrowth and rebirth is seen at every corner in Rwanda and I am encouraged that Africa New Life's programs, will continue to improve the lives of the Rwandan people.

While on our trip, Steve and I saw first-hand how powerful the gift of sponsorship is. To be able to see the child you sponsor grow and thrive under your assistance is a blessing. As Pastor Charles says "you can't change the world, but you can change the world for one." If you're interested in changing the world for one, please visit Africa New Life's new Web site "Steve's Kids."

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