IMPUHWE means “compassion” in Kinyarwanda, the official language of Rwanda. That is exactly what compelled Jessica Markowitz at the ripe age of 11 years young, to start Richard’s Rwanda, an organization providing financial support for the education of young Rwandan girls, many of whom were orphaned by the genocide of 1994.
Now 16, she is a junior at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, and is involved in many different activities, including tennis, cheerleading, student government, and the honors society. She is also a member of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization teen board and serves as their chair of community service for the Pacific Northwest.
Fortunately, this busy young lady was able to set aside some time to tell her story:
IP: How did you get the idea to start Richard’s Rwanda?
JM: My original inspiration came from Richard, a Rwandan human rights activist who stayed with my family and recounted sad tales about so many girls who were orphaned and could no longer afford to go to school. He spoke about the war that occurred in his country in 1994 and I was alarmed and shocked by how children and especially girls were affected. I was a student at the Seattle Girls School, learning how to be a powerful young lady and I wanted all girls to feel empowered. So I decided to start a group at my school to support girls’ educational opportunities in rural Rwanda. I feel that education is a fundamental human right.
On my first trip to Rwanda I visited the Forum of African Women Educationalist (FAWE) Girls School and developed friendships with a few students at the school. One student in particular had lost family during the genocide and asked if she could be my “sister”. When I returned to Rwanda the following year my new “sister” had a surprise waiting for me. She had felt it was important for Rwandan city girls to reach out to less fortunate rural girls and had decided to start a chapter of Richard’s Rwanda at her school. I was overwhelmed with joy because the FAWE students donated their pocket money and also committed to a life-time of volunteering at the chapter. They told me: if an American can do it, then they can too!
The school has subsequently adopted the Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE program as a community service mentoring project and over 80 FAWE students have signed up to participate. When graduating the eighth grade I continued with other FAWE members to open chapters at their high schools. I have raised over $120,000 for the 40 girls my Rwandan “sister” supports in Nyamata, Rwanda.
IP: How is Richard’s Rwanda unique?
JM: We are all about building and sustaining relationships, not just raising funds. Like in the old axiom, I believe in the power of providing a fishing pole, not just the fish, and to develop connections throughout Rwanda. The hope is to create a movement across the world connecting and empowering youth to become leaders. Currently Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE has seven chapters in Seattle and two chapters in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. I’ve received requests from several others around the world wanting to join in on this movement. The program is unique in not only providing assistance wherever possible, but also working to help young women become capable of helping others, a cyclical setup that ensures future triumphs. It is critical for young women to be educated and empowered as so many become leaders of their households.
IP: What do you personally get out of being involved with Richard’s Rwanda?
JM: The rewards of being involved with Richard’s Rwanda are so powerful. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to be connected to so many amazing young women across the world. The support we provide has dramatically impacted the lives of the 40 Rwandan students. The scholarships have allowed the girls to attend primary school in preparation for entrance and completion of secondary school. This was accomplished by paying their school fees, insurance coverage, uniforms and school supplies. This was the first time the girls were able to take home their own schoolbook to study. By subsidizing these costs, families are more supportive of their girls attending school.
We are working to eliminate gender disparities in education. The girls are developing and maturing into outstanding female leaders. It has been incredible to see first-hand how effective education has been on their lives, communities and families. Additionally it is rewarding to know that students from the US are joining our organization to become global citizens.
IP: Do you think of yourself as a philanthropist?
JM: I think being a philanthropist is an incredible honor. I truly just want to make a difference and hope I can make the world a better place. It’s a gift to be able to make a difference– it is very rewarding and feeds my soul.
IP: What words of wisdom would you have for young people like yourself who are interested in making a difference?
JM: My advice to other entrepreneurs would be to never give up, achieve your dreams, and work hard to get your voice heard and valued. Youth are part of the solution and we can make a difference. It’s empowering for a young person to be a philanthropist. One should never doubt themselves and the power they have to create positive change.