Tuesday, 13 January 2015

From Oklahoma to Rwanda: Part 1

It’s a word that has many different meanings for people.  For some, it’s just a monthly contribution to a charity, a set amount withdrawn automatically from a bank account and for the most part, never missed. For some, it’s a picture on the refrigerator or tucked into a frame; and when people ask, it’s the reply, “Oh that’s the little boy (or girl) we support in Mexico (or Cambodia, or Ecuador, or Togo).”  For some, it’s a monthly sacrifice, a way of giving back. For some, it’s a way to teach charitable giving to our children. And for some, the word “sponsorship” is akin to the word “family”; a relationship built despite the miles.

Sharon Banning is one of these. In November of 2014, Sharon embarked on a 13,000 km journey to meet her sponsored son, Jean D’Amour Iradukunda. Leaving her home in Oklahoma, she traveled with a small group of people, including her twin sister and brother-in-law, to Kigali Rwanda; a world vastly different from the one she was accustomed to. Although Sharon has previously spent some time in Africa; namely, Zambia, a mission trip was a huge step for her. So when she traveled to Rwanda with Shelter Them, she was unprepared for how the people of Rwanda would steal her heart.
I recently did an interview with Sharon, so I’ll allow her to share her experiences in her own words!

Hannah: So Sharon, what first prompted you to travel to Rwanda?
Sharon: I was going through a particularly difficult time in my life, having lost my son 22 months ago. I needed to find a new direction. I was prompted to visit Rwanda by my sister and brother-in-law, Sherry and David. They encouraged me to go, and their passion for Shelter Them and the people of Rwanda was contagious. They assured me that this trip would be a life-changing event and they couldn't have been more right. My husband Jim also recognized my need for a change, and about 6 weeks before the Shelter Them team was scheduled to leave for Africa, Jim surprised me by telling me I would be going with the group. I was thrilled and a little anxious all at the same time. But there was so much to do in such a short time I didn't have a lot of time to think about the decision. So I hustled and got all my shots and all the things I needed to travel to a third world country for two weeks. I also needed to gather things to take to our sponsored children and those in desperate need. As the time got closer I became more and more excited. I repacked a dozen times and had Sherry on speed dial. I constantly bombarded her with questions about our trip, our accommodations and living conditions, our children, the itinerary, and on and on.
Hannah: Did you have any expectations of what your trip would be like? What were they?
Sharon: I did have certain expectations of what the trip would be like - some positive and some negative. You see I lived in Africa, specifically Zambia, for a year about 9 years ago and it was my first experience with expat life. It was a difficult transition for me and I found myself constantly bombarded by people wanting something from me. I was also very disillusioned with organized religion there, having a negative experience with a church we tried to help there. I thought religion was Big Business and very corrupt, like most of the rest of Africa.
So my expectations of this trip were definitely influenced by my past experience. I did expect to find a lot of poverty (as I had seen in Zambia) and I expected to see a lot of people with their hands out looking for help. On the positive side, I also expected to see the smiling, happy faces of the children. I also remembered that even the poorest children in Zambia had such beautiful smiles and rarely cried.
I also expected to be living in very rustic conditions and wasn't sure how I would handle that. You see, I had been a little spoiled since marrying my wonderful husband. I worried about whether or not I would like the food so I brought along lots of protein bars just in case!

Hannah: Was your trip different/similar to what you were expecting? What were some of the differences?

Sharon: Some aspects of the trip were similar to what I expected and some were different. The big difference was how I felt about those in need of help. I never once felt used and I rarely saw anyone begging in the street. I felt it was a blessing to be able to help those in desperate need and the joy, gratitude, and love I saw on the faces of those precious people can’t be described in words.
I was also not prepared for the level of caring and dedication that our Rwandan Shelter Them team delivered. I know, I was told our people on the ground in Rwanda were honest but I still had my preconceived ideas that all aid groups in Africa were in it for what they could get for themselves. Boy, that could not have been further from the truth. Jules, Bright, Gloria, and Mama Yesu were the most honest, giving, loving, and caring people I had ever met. They gave so unselfishly of themselves that I was embarrassed that I even questioned their motives.

Hannah: How did you feel when you met your sponsored child for the first time?

Sharon: This is a tough question for me to answer because it is very difficult for me to put into words all the feelings I experienced at our first meeting. We arrived in Kigali early in the day after an exhausting 24 hours of travel. Then we had a few problems at the airport with Customs and I was ready to go to our guesthouse and crash. Then we were told we would be going to visit the homes of our sponsored children. All exhaustion was forgotten. The anticipation of meeting our kids, in particular my sponsored son, Jean D'Amour, was overwhelming. I could barely contain myself I was so excited. I was crying and laughing at the same time. The emotions overwhelmed me. I would be coming face to face with my sponsored child. When we arrived there I remember that no one was around. No one answered the door when we knocked and I thought maybe I would not get to see my boy today. But it turned out they were taking an afternoon nap. They soon emerged, looking sleepy but very content. When I first set eyes on Jean D'Amour I recognized him instantly. He was even more handsome than his picture on the sponsor sheet. I remember hugging him so hard through my tears. Yes, I was bawling like a baby. The joy I felt finally seeing him in the flesh was indescribable. I didn't want to let him go. He had such a haunted look in his eyes and such a serious face that I decided maybe I should let him go before I scared him to death. The boys proceeded to thank us and when Jean D'Amour's turn came I couldn't believe my ears. The president couldn't have delivered a more eloquent speech. How could these beautiful words be coming out of the mouth of this shy, introverted boy? Then the house papa told us that Jean D'Amour was first in his class at school. I was so proud of him. Two years ago, at the age of 12, when he entered our program he had never gone to school. He was struggling at school and barely able to keep up. To have come so far in such a short time despite his traumatic childhood spoke volumes about his perseverance. I just remember thinking how am I going to leave this precious boy in two weeks. Jean D'Amour spoke such touching words of his gratitude for Shelter Them and specifically thanked me, his new Mama, for saving him and giving him hope for a bright future. My heart overflowed with love for this child and my life was changed forever.

Since the death of my son 22 months ago I had this empty place in my heart that I doubted ever could be filled.  A mother is supposed to protect her children, but I was not able to save my precious boy. I constantly lived with this guilt. I will never be able to have my precious Greg back with me (not in this life anyway) but I realized that I could offer hope to this precious boy. I recently read an article that stated, "Don't let grief be your constant companion...Realize that your grief is born out of unconditional love and rejoice in that love which will never end...Embracing life again is not a sign that you have stopped missing your loved one, but an example of a love that is eternal." I was now embracing life again, thanks to Shelter Them and my sponsored child, Jean D'Amour.

This is Part One of a two-part series. For Part Two, click here: Part Two


  1. Hannah,what a beautiful ,touching story! I could barely read through my tears.Everyone who has lost a loved one should read this amazing story.It's so beautiful how God helped to heal Sharons broken heart .

  2. Wow. We serve an amazing God. Thank you for sharing Sharon's story. And I completly relate to sponsorship being the addition of family members.