How do I even begin? It has been a little over 9 years since the idea of starting a nonprofit first came to me. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I lived in North Carolina at the time, and had been at Cisco for less than 2 years. I remember pondering over names that I felt would fit the mission of the work I had on my mind: how do I use my personal story to encourage & be a blessing to others? The name “Rising Above the Storms (RAS)” was born.
However, I also understood that doing this nonprofit thing meant entering some uncharted waters; for example the vulnerability that might come with sharing a personal tragic story to strangers I may never meet in person. In tandem, I also launched this personal blog, initially called a Soothing Voice, and later changed to Beauty for Ashes (Isaiah 61:3).
The early days of RAS were unequivocally slow, rightfully so. Albeit, 9 years down the road, I can safely say that I didn’t fully grasp the burden of launching a nonprofit while early on my career as a female engineer, with zero leadership experience. While it might sound cliché, all I was armed with was a vision and a passion. And 9+ years later, I am still as passionate, and more hopeful.
While I mostly winged it, there’s one thing I fully understood from the beginning: I absolutely had no budget to spend upfront. I couldn’t afford a lawyer to help with putting together our ByLaws, Articles of Incorporation and file them with the State. For that reason, I decided to take my sweet time with everything. I built our first website from scratch, got approved by the State of North Carolina and opened a bank account, all by myself.
The next step, if I had to start receiving donations, it was critical that I get the public charity status with the Internal Revenue Services first. The application was probably the most challenging part of the process with the amount of information it required. This time, a friend helped me! However, struggling to understand differences, Rising Above the Storms was first approved as a Private Foundation in 2016. This meant that we couldn’t solicit donations; immediately, I had to file for an amendment and shortly after we were a public charity the same year and ready to rock and roll 😀
The upside to all this is that you learn so much when you do everything from scratch; while this post’s intention isn’t to share the wisdom and lessons learned, but if I had to write one thing now it would be this: if you start a nonprofit, alone, with no funds to do the preliminary work, it might be wise NOT to combine it with a full time, demanding job. Although I have to say that I love the idea of having a career so that all funds for RAS go directly to where they need to be. Another mistake I made early on was my inability to discern talents I needed due lack of time or luxury to be selective when it came to volunteers. Consequently, I’ve had to rely on friends who absolutely cared for my vision, but didn’t necessarily have the skill I needed to advance my mission. Being at the mercy of whoever is willing to give it a try is not a good feeling!
Please don’t get me wrong; I am eternally indebted to everyone who had served as a guinea pig at the beginning of this journey. It definitely shaped the way we do things today and helped us get us started. But if I could do it over again, there are things I would do differently. I’d just have a concrete business plan before embarking in this incredible journey. Because I sure didn’t have one in place.
We navigated from small fundraiser events, to a successful gala to a canceled one to building a solid Board and team of volunteers. Surprisingly, 2020 was our best year yet in terms of fundraising. It’s been a game changer to watch how much can be done when you are surrounded by people who are both talented and equally passionate about the vision and mission of an organization. Everyone starts from somewhere.
Our partnership with Amahoro (Peace Builders) that launched a Learning Center in January 2017 with 11 children found on the streets in Rwanda keeps growing, with most children joined in the past 1.5 years, which unfortunately is a consequence of the pandemic. Most children are boys, ranging between 12-16 years old. Numbers go up and down but the majority of children have remained consistent. Today, we have over 50 children who attend on regular basis. Also, as of November 2021, we launched a year-long partnership with Westcon-Comstor Subsaharan Africa to expand our Computer Lab, sponsor 10 children, as well as building a longterm strategy for a lasting impact on the children through mentorship.
Finally, in 2021, we launched a new logo, gear, and a new website. Through an anonymous donor, we shipped items worth over US$10k to Rwanda from the US worth that includes soccer gear, school material, shoes and clothes for the kids.
All in all, we have come along way, as an organization, me personally and our kids in Rwanda. But we still have a long way to go. Like a lot of organizations and companies, the vision evolves. We’ve had to shift focus from time to time. An example was my assumption on how education would look like for our youth. I figured they all would be like me: go from high school, to college and grad school and professional career. This couldn’t be far from the reality on the ground: as you see from the stats above, more than a half of our kids’ grades don’t even hit 50%. It was eye opening for me.
The truth is that education for some of them will perhaps look different; while ideally we want everyone to finish high school at minimum, we watch very closely and monitor their progress. Our focus will shift to trade careers and job skills training to prepare them for the job market. Only a handful may make it to a traditional university. In fact, our very first high school – university bound candidate Idrissa – graduated last year. He’s interested in mechanical engineering. I look forward to seeing wonderful things he will do for himself, his family and community.
In the end, the important thing is that they gain experience or learn a skill that will better their lives and those around them. I am eternally grateful to everyone who has contributed from small to great thing to Rising Above the Storms. I have met and I am blessed to be surrounded by many generous people who have made RAS a possibility. They are too many to number for sure.
It would be a very remiss not to mention one person in particular: my adopted mother Glori who’s a gift from heaven (check out this post I wrote about her). When I first shared with her about my vision to start RAS, she immediately gave me a donation check. I chuckle about it because back then I was not ready to accept donations. However, her reasoning was that eventually I’d get to put it to a good use. The first few deposits to our RAS checking account, in a few thousands of dollars, have all been from her. She believed in me even before I believed in myself. To say that my new parents have changed my life is an understatement.
So many people to thank who have poured into RAS with their expertise, time and finances. If I wrote each one, it’d be pages and pages. But let me just say that they are appreciated more than they will ever know. I pray for God’s blessings for each one!
Will you join us today in this incredible journey? You can change a kid’s life. There are many ways you can join our journey:
- You can sponsor a K-12 student at $50 a month. This amount covers basic needs for a child to participate in life changing programs at the Center
- You can buy and wear an item from our collection, powered by the Cisco Store; Cisco goes above and beyond to ensure their employees are cared for, professionally and individually. Giving back is in our Cisco’s DNA
- You can donate toward our Light at the End of the Storm Campaign.
- You can donate on our website: ways to help.
- You can share and like our social media pages found at the bottom of our RAS page.
I am so thankful to everyone who contributes to making my dream of being a blessing to the most vulnerable youth come true. I look forward to 2022 with hope and anticipation!