And That Is a Wrap! Goodbye 2020!!

Just like any other year, my husband & I spent Christmas 2019 with my family upstate NY & New Year’s with his parents in the midwest! We usually rotate holidays with our families every year, which works perfectly for us. While neither of us is known for New Year’s resolutions & such, still, we felt hopeful & looked forward to 2020, and our 1st wedding anniversary celebration which was around the corner (mid-January). We celebrated it in Palm Springs, CA, with a plan to do a proper celebration the following month in Hawai’i. Palm Springs was a lot of fun, and definitely much warmer than our northern neck of the woods, especially in January!

As we had planned, in late February, we were finally on our way to Hawai’i. It was an exciting moment especially for me since it was my first time in HI. We first touched down at the Honolulu International Airport, on the main island of Oahu, to reach our connection via Hawaiian Airlines. The Honolulu airport & its surrounding reminded me so much about Rwanda’s savannah in the Eastern Province! Shortly after, we were back up and on our way to the beautiful Island of Kaua’i, which is the most northwestern part of the Hawaiian archipelago, and landed at the Lihue Airport.

What beautiful & breathtaking views, water, mountains! It was just as I had imagined, and more. We stayed in the northern part of the island, Princeville. And of course we did as any tourist would do: we drove around the entire island (from Princeville to the north western part, Waimea), visited water falls, Lighthouses, Canyons, hiked rainforests, spent most time at the beaches, of which Kaua’i has in abundance, and not crowded at all. It was a breath of fresh air.

While there, the temperatures were between 70-80s which was fantastic, especially for a tropical weather girl like me. The southwestern part of the Island, Waimea, known for its black sand beaches, was especially warmer and less windy from my experience. The sun tan at the beach there was just what we needed!

As our stay was coming to the end, unfortunately, the pandemic was also making its headway & getting worse by the minute. Looking back, we wished we had extended our stay there and be stranded in a sunny weather instead. Shortly after we arrived back to the mainland US, the lockdown went into effect nationwide. Unbeknownst to most, this was the beginning of the longest, probably most depressing period most people have ever had to go through.

Princeville RESORT, Kaua’i

So when I say goodbye to 2020, I am pretty sure I am speaking on behalf of many people! To say that 2020 has brought so much hardship is an understatement! Although the impact varies depending on individual situation pre-covid, but the most vulnerable in the world (economically, financially etc.) were hit the worst. We have seen it with the street children we work with through Rising Above the Storms in Rwanda; the loss of the source of income & hunger was even severe for their families that were already fragile!

UNICEF says it best: “this is a universal crisis and, for some children, the impact will be lifelong; without urgent action, this health crisis risks becoming a child-rights crisis“.

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BEAUTIFUL KIGALI, THE CAPITAL OF RWANDA, NIGHTTIME!

While there are probably way too many posts about how depressing 2020 has been, I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight things I am grateful for, and hopefully spread some positive encouragement in a world that I believe needs it so desperately.

As we bit 2020 adieu, I am very thankful to God Almighty for:

– Health & Family

As I type this, there has been more than 83 million cases worldwide & over 1.8 million lives gone due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people have lost jobs, the world economy is in shambles. Today, being safe and healthy is a something I never want to take for granted, even after this pandemic is long gone. I am grateful to God for my families in the US & Rwanda who have been incredible warriors through this. My amazing husband who’s a gift from heaven and my best friend! I cannot begin to imagine how hard this must have been for people who live by themselves! I thank God for my job, and the flexibility to do it & Cisco I work for! I say a prayer for everyone who is in any kind of need, and that God will use me anyway He choses!

– A much Needed Trip to Hawai’i

While my husband & I wished we had stayed in the sunny Hawai’i longer instead of returning to mainland US & be in a lockdown here, I am grateful for our vacation there, our experience, warm weather, good food, beautiful views, beaches and hiking trails. It was definitely a perfect timing, because soon after, places were no longer accepting visitors.

– My nonprofit RAS’ Donors & Supporters

I cannot imagine where Rising Above the Storms would be today if it were not for the generosity of so many people who have chosen to believe in my vision & mission to change lives of the most vulnerable children over the years. This year was no exception; despite the hardship endured this year by way too many people, donations have been still coming, and we have been able to keep up with our children’s needs and go beyond to support their families during the lockdown. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

Moreover, our Rwanda employees were able to receive their salaries during the shutdown, which makes me forever grateful. As we change lives of the most vulnerable children, my hope and prayer is that families & communities our staff are part of are also positively impacted. That’s my dream!

– Our Board & Teams

I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by incredible people who have rolled up their sleeves this year to plow through uncertainties to keep RAS up and running. I couldn’t find a photo that has everyone in it (and looks great) but my gratitude to each and everyone of them is immeasurable. 2020 has been surprisingly the most productive year we’ve had at RAS to date. These powerful women (mostly Cisco employees; we have couple of men too, but they couldn’t make this call) have achieved more than I could imagine: from communications, fundraising, finances, strategies, social media, you name it! I am indebted to them!

Some of the most incredible people who are behind everything good we have been doing!

– A Trip to Rwanda

What an incredible opportunity to get to travel to Rwanda in October this year! I guess it might come as a shock since I travel there at least once or twice a year; but this trip was extra special for so many reasons. As a frequent traveler, normally a trip like this gets me excited and is always almost predictable. However, for the first time, this was not the case. Due to COVID-19, I was very nervous about the unknowns.

Our Library at the Learning Center in Rwanda

I had so many questions that I didn’t have answers to prior to taking this journey: do I need to stay awake for 17 hours? Can I sleep with a mask on? Are the airplanes safe to be on for that long during a pandemic? How about connecting via Europe that was going through the second wave? Do we get fed on the plane as usual? Will the trip get canceled?

I’d assume that a lot of people have had these questions and more, or are afraid to fly all together. The good news is that you can safely travel during the pandemic. I am not going into details with what the airlines are doing to keep passengers safe, but I think they are doing everything they can to keep passengers safe. My husband and I certainly felt comfortable. Delta has been my favorite airline for the past 3-4 years, and they truly delivered on their promise during this trip.

having a conversation with our team in Rwanda

Landing in Rwanda, it was impressive to see how organized the airport was at handling arriving passengers and prioritizing everyone’s safety. At the time, Rwanda required a negative COVID-19 test valid for 5 days prior to arriving in the country. Moreover, arriving passengers had to be quarantined (at a hotel) upon arrival, and get tested once again. Once the results were in and negative, then you were free to go. Luckily, there were several hotels to pick from to self-quarantine in, including 5-star hotels, of course at the traveler’s expense. I was amazed by how quickly we got our results back (less than 12 hours) and were able to leave our hotel and see my family. The whole process from landing to leaving the hotel was smooth and uneventful.

Navigating the city of Kigali was made easier by restrictions that were put in place; hand washing and temperature check at every entrance, masks and physical distancing enforced wherever possible. This truly made the experience more comfortable; my husband and I even managed to see the kids at our Center, and visited with the staff. I treasured every moment; I didn’t think it was going to be possible to see them. I deeply appreciated our staff and kids’ resiliency on another level.

just beautiful. Downtown Kigali at night!

I have always been grateful of how far along our kids have come, and admired their strength after all they have gone through in their young lives; however, getting to see them after many months of lockdown and learning how that has impacted them really gave me a new level of gratitude. Our kids were allowed to return to the Center for the first time on October 5th since March. That’s almost 8 months. I had a privilege to have a 1:1 conversation with a few of them.

The common concern they all had was being home for a long time without interacting with their friends, hunger, missing school. They were very excited to be back to the Center where they can eat, play, see their friends and get help going through school work. This experience was a personal reminder of the work we do there and the courage of our staff. I saw joy and hope in their innocent eyes; I saw excitement about the future. If there has ever been any setback about the progress we’ve made, their joy gave me strength to keep marching forward.

I also had an amazing conversation with our staff; they shared how their main priority in coming months would be to figure out ways to help our kids catch up to their peers as they started school this November, and beyond. We talked about their experience during the lockdown. They shared how they did their best to stay in touch with the children virtually, which was difficult because of technology access for those families.

I also learned that while our staff members were blessed to be getting their salaries during the lockdown, they didn’t forget those who were not as fortunate. One staff member mentioned how he and his wife were able to buy food supplies for 4 different families at different times during the lockdown. I was deeply touched by this selfless act of kindness. They shared how grateful they are to be in these kids’ lives; they emphasized on how they love their job, our kids & are grateful to get paid to do what they enjoy doing the most.

Back in April, our Rwanda team also did a food distribution in April where they fed about 100 household members of our kids. The process was tedious because of the restrictions of the lockdown; however, parents were very touched by the gesture. And more importantly, parents and local authorities shared how this proved to them our commitment not only to kids, but their families and Rwandan communities. Since then, the local administration has a newfound appreciation of the work we do there. I was deeply moved!

I left energized and encouraged by the visit. If nothing else, I believe that the pandemic has made us even more stronger.

I look forward to 2021 with hope!

Blessings to you and all your loved ones 💕💕

Looking Back at 2019: I am Beyond Humbled!

I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me. ~ Psalm 13:6 (NKJV)

Another year in the books! 2010’s coming to an end, and we are about to start a new decade. As we wrap up 2019, I want to take this moment and reflect on the past 12 months; I am deeply humbled and filled with gratitude to Jesus, my Lord & King, to my amazing family, incredible friends, and community around the world. 2019 may have been my busiest year to-date, but it has also been the best year of my life! The Lord Has truly been great to me!

So here is to summarize my 2019:

  • I got married 

I tied the knot with the man of my dreams! I ask him often what took him so long 😀 He is by no means perfect, and I am not either. But he is absolutely perfect for me! Almost a year later, I love him even more, if possible. I shared more details about our big day in this post: ❤️On This Day, I married my Best Friend❤️

Our First Dance

  • I made it to the Asian continent, for the first time!

Xin chào (hello in Vietnamese)! After a long deliberation and having way too many options (which doesn’t always help), we finally ditched the idea of a honeymoon in Hawaii at sunset for a completely different, new place. In my defense, it’s very hard to find a location that my husband has not been to. His professional career has taken him around the world, to countries and places that will take me a lifetime to catch up to. Luckily, Vietnam happened to be one of those places he had yet to visit. So, it was settled!

At the Ho Quoc Temple, Phu Quoc, Vietnam overlooking the Gulf of Thailand

As an added bonus to our choices, my husband found a JW Marriott resort, which made our decision much easier since I have been part of their Marriott Bonvoy top tier for the past 2 years I have been staying with them. The Vietnam’s island of Phú Quốc was decided on and we booked our travels without a hitch. And it turned out to be one of the best travel experiences of our lives.

JW Marriott Resort entrance in Phu Quoc, Vietnam

Phú Quốc is an Island located south of Cambodia. Relatively undeveloped, and mostly part of the National Park, it’s also home to the world’s longest cable car, white sand beaches, tropical jungles and so many other hidden treasures. We loved it there and the Vietnamese people were very nice to us.

We also visited the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi

  • Cisco Award

In addition to being nominated as one of 10 Cisco Bridge Award Winners (2018) which I wrote in this post: A great Privilege that I got to be named one of them, I was voted as the Cisco 2019 Community Hero. I am absolutely not a hero; but it was my greatest honor to be bestowed upon this title by my Cisco global community, and our Leaders.

Accepting the Award from our CEO Chuck Robbins & EVP & Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas

Part of this award, Cisco donated cash to my nonprofit Rising Above the Storms for our work in Rwanda. Moreover, Cisco flew me and a media crew to film my childhood neighborhood in Rwanda and my nonprofit work there. They produced a short story to summarize it; click here to watch: Cisco Community Hero. The experience was incredible and surreal!

The Award

  • Moving Across Country

This is an understatement to be honest with you. I don’t know if I call it an accomplishment but it did happen! After our wedding, I relocated from one US coast to to the other, literally. Moving is never easy, but moving across country is a huge task to undertake. Luckily, my husband is a great planner, which made the process bearable for both of us.

The pod getting packed up

I chose to (and obviously had to) get rid of things that were not worth keeping, packed the rest and we loaded it up in a moving pod. My car was shipped separately of course. Thankfully, prior to the wrap up, we had already moved anything that could fit in suitcases by plane, without any additional cost, since Delta allows my husband and I 2-3 free checked bags each. It was a blessing! Our moving pod and car made it to their destination without a problem and ahead of time.

  • I finally visited Alaska

Well, in my head, Alaska sounded far away and unique. The first time I got intrigued by the beauty this place is dates back to the movie The Proposal by Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in 2009, about Sitka. I then joked to my friends that I couldn’t wait to visit the country of Alaska. Of course I knew that it was a state, but in my defense, some US states may as well be called countries since sometime laws vary from place by place as if they were independent countries.

Cruising around Juneau, Alaska

Regardless, I wanted to visit it. Luckily for us, when we visited around the 4th of July, it was the warmest summer that Juneau had seen in 112 years apparently. It was in the 80s for the whole time we were there, which was a real treat for me, a tropical weather lady. The caveat, people there don’t speak the air conditioning language. Can you blame them?

It was funny to find out that even our Four Points by Sheraton (a Marriott Hotel) or the Juneau airport didn’t have air conditioning. I mean, who needs AC when the weather rarely makes it to 73 degrees? We couldn’t sleep that well because it was too warm and the space fans didn’t do the trick, but man, did we have fun whale watching, hiking the Mendenhall Park and exploring the Glacier (Nugget) Falls!! It was an amazing experience.

Anchorage, Alaska, at 12:01am (July 7th)

We also visited Anchorage, Alaska, which was an experience of a lifetime for me to go to bed past midnight and it was still bright out. I have never seen anything like that! The sun set around 11:30pm. I couldn’t believe it. In Rwanda where I was born and raised, the sun rises at 6am and sets at 6pm, as long as I can remember. Rwanda is only a few degrees below the equator.

  • RAS Board of Directors 

Yes, I finally have a group of incredible & successful women who have decided to help me take RAS vision and mission to the next level. I am extremely excited, grateful to their expertise and I look forward to what 2020 has in store for us, for our kids in Rwanda and the future. Check out our team’s bio.

With some of RAS Board Members

  • Rwanda Learning Center Computer Lab

Yes, you read that right. This past November (2019), we introduced laptops at our Learning Center in Rwanda, to help forge our kids’ confidence, promote skills learning, while we provide them with a motivation to stay in our programs, and prevent them from going back to the streets, and prepare them for a future career in technology.

The Laptops installed in our Rwanda Learning Center Computer Lab

I believe that, giving RAS youth access to technology that they can’t afford in their home environment, will help them catch up with peers, enable them to engage others outside their communities, and maybe turn out to be a career path for some of them. It is so moving to see how excited they are to learn and can’t wait to see how impactful the knowledge will be to them.

The kids busy learning; Dec 11, 2019

  • I made Delta Diamond

It’s a big deal  to me 🤷‍♀️😊 I switched to Delta at the beginning of 2017, from American Airlines. Comparing with American, I personally think that Delta makes it difficult to climb up. However, I realized that Delta was my best shot to travel to Africa because of its partnership with KLM that really makes the journey bearable between the US and Africa. When you reach the diamond status, you are flying at least 10k miles a month and spending a lot of money to accumulate enough base miles (MQMs) and dollars (MQDs). So, I guess you could say the 3rd time is a charm here, 3rd year!

Delta diamond medallion requirements

  • Who’s keeping Score?

Well, I think I broke record this year; I managed to be on 3 different continents, and connected through the 4th, all in one week. How did that happen? After spending about a week and a half in Vietnam, we returned to the United States on a Monday. The very next day, Tuesday, I left for California, where I spent couple of days. Later that week, I left for Africa from San Francisco, via Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I arrived in Rwanda the same week I left Vietnam, on a Sunday. It was a crazy week.

A picture with our kids at our Center in Rwanda

I spent 10 days in Africa; toward the end of the trip, understandably, my body gave in. I went down with a cold. Flying sick is the worst. Getting back to the US, I only had 48 hours to recover from my cold before my husband and I could fly [across country] to finish packing my stuff to get our home ready for rental. The wedding, honeymoon to Asia, a trip to Africa, moving across country, to name a few, all happened between January – March this year.

As we enter 2020, I am even more hopeful and excited about the new beginnings, changes, experiences, travels, new friends.

Thank you very much for reading this. I pray for the Lord’s blessings on you and your loved ones, this holiday season, the New Year and always.

“For You have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” Psalm 116: 8-9

My Heart is Glad & My Soul Rejoices!

“I will declare Your name to my brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will praise You” ~ Psalm 22:22 

With my husband, my travel partner for life! Juneau, AK

My husband recently told me that the travel bug bit me. May be he has a point? Looking back though, I don’t think I remember when I first got interested in traveling. Growing up in Rwanda, you can easily drive from one end to the other in less than a day. It’s that small! Many Rwandans don’t necessarily vacation outside their homes, and still a few do get the luxury to travel outside Rwanda today. Like most, my first plane ride was later in life. While in college in Rwanda, I was awarded to attend an international conference organized by ITU (International Telecommunication Union) in Cairo, Egypt for young IT engineers. It was a huge deal!! First time on the plane and outside the country!

High Falls, Rochester, NY

Couple years later, when I first moved to the United States, its size and opportunities it had to offer must have stirred something in me. The idea of flying for hours inside one country left me puzzled! While I took some history and geography classes in high school (least favorite topics then for a Math & Physics major), I was still clueless about the world map and where countries were located on the map. For example, when I first moved to the States, in Rochester, NY, that’s when I found out that Canada was right across Lake Ontario just north of me. How shocking!

Hanoi, Vietnam. 2019

While in grad school @ RIT, I didn’t get to travel much even during breaks; while it may be normal for students not to have a lot of money, my situation has always been unique. Even after I got a full time job that paid relatively well, I had already been used to splitting 4 ways every blessing that ever came my way. The more I had, the more I felt compelled to make sure that my siblings didn’t need anything in this life. Although I very well know that our parents will forever remain irreplaceable in our lives, but I have come to believe that I was spared for a reason. If it is to play even a small role in their healing process, I have no regret in this life!

Amsterdam, 2016

Honestly, it never bothered me that I couldn’t have everything other girls around me had. It was no different when I had my first job: to this day, one of my greatest fond memories is when I received my first paycheck as a Teaching Assistant, a job that was offered to me at the same college I went to in Rwanda. Prior to graduation, the College chose a few of graduate candidates with top grades and offered them a Teaching Assistant job. I didn’t have to wait, or do job hunting; I felt so lucky! After a month, my first paycheck, about $400 (in 2005), all of it, was mine! I couldn’t believe it. This was the largest amount of money I have ever owned.

Downtown Kigali, Rwanda, at night!

As soon as it was deposited in my bank account, I called my siblings, with the most exciting news: I was taking them shopping! This very first time, they were not going to be wearing hand-me-downs. Up to this time, a cousin had been picking clothes that were too small for him and handed it down to my brother. I shared clothes with my sisters. But this time, they were all going to pick whichever ones they liked, brand new. I sat down, watching their excitement; I got emotional! I told them to pick anything they wanted. I didn’t really care, that a half of it went to their clothes, and I gave them the rest for school. I knew I’d get more next month. To this day, this personally remains a fond memory that I treasure all my life. The joy of my siblings I call my kids has been my greatest gift! My heart rejoices in the Lord of my Salvation!

Duomo di Milano, Italy

While memories like this one are an absolute treasure, I have tons others that I wish I could blot out completely and erase forever. Memories like that of relatives who have hurt and abused my siblings and I instead of being there for us. An aunt who told me that I would never amount to anything in life, and later burned all my clothes and high school diploma. She was so sure that this would stop me from attending college where I had been awarded a full scholarship. She probably thought this would mean the future filled with uncertainty for me! Read Beyond Broken Memories or Hope; God is Real!

The Pont des Arts. Paris, France 2012

But some of the most humbling experience were my early days of college where I lived off campus. Since there were no rooms on campus for incoming freshmen, I had to figure out where to live, a place that’d allow me to walk to school everyday. While this was absolutely a concern, the major challenge was $50 to register for college. Miraculously, I got that money and started college. However, the next 2 years would bring days where I had to visit people I knew around lunch time, in hopes to eat with them. It was my last resort, after not eating for couple of days. I had been close to becoming homeless, or worse!

Food in Croatia was the best. The country and its people stole my heart ❤

Recently, my husband and I traveled to Alaska, It was my first time there. I was struck by beauty and nature found in its capital, Juneau. We participated in a few things as any tourist would do, without going crazy. We hiked to the Mendenhall Glacier, visited Nugget Falls. However my favorite part was whale watching. While it’s an incredible experience watching those creatures showing off their water skills, my favorite part was when our tour boat was cruising around Juneau (for 4 hours). There were about 40 or so people were onboard. My husband being like me instead of sitting inside, we went out back and rode on the deck. As we cruised chasing whales around, the engine was very loud at 30 miles/hour. Since a conversation was not an option during that time, I got time to reflect.

The Glaciers in Juneau, Alaska 2019

With the water as far as my eyes could see, perched between beautiful mountains designed to perfection by the Creator, I couldn’t help but praising the Lord! I marveled at their beauty and got lost in their gaze. The water was so beautiful, and waves splashing, clear blue sky, warm weather that Juneau has not seen in 112 years, it was a dream! Somehow my brain raced back to when I had nothing, and no one. I couldn’t believe the beauty, majestic creation that surrounded me, while in the embrace of the most amazing man that only God could have created just for me! I thought of my siblings, my past, my nonprofit, my life, my husband, my adopted parents, my friends, my blessings!

London Tower Bridge, 2016

As if in a prayer, I whispered to God, my Father & Provider, counting my blessings: I could afford to be in Alaska without breaking a pocket. I experienced luxury without my siblings missing a meal or school. I can eat or afford anything I want. I have stayed at 5-star resorts and luxury hotels, flown first class without spending a fortune. My travel & hotel statuses often afford me a treatment that is more than I anticipate or expect. I have traveled almost everywhere, from small towns to big cities and everything in between. I am truly grateful!

At the United Nations Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland!

I have been blessed with a job that had allowed me that opportunity for the past 7 years. I didn’t ask for it, but perhaps God knew that I enjoyed traveling but couldn’t afford it so He gave it to me! Yes, I did work so hard in school, but so did/do many people. However, while things may seem like it’s going great, there is something that I had asked God long time ago: not to allow my heart to be too merry to forget my painful past.

“Remove falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me with the food allotted to me. Lest I be full and deny You, and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God.” Proverbs 30:8-9

Downtown Johannesburg, South Africa, 2018

Just like Moses pleading with Israelites & cautioned them against disobeying God after entering the land God prepared for them.

“So it shall be, when the Lord your God brings you into the land of which He swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give you large and beautiful cities which you did not build, houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, hewn-out wells which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant—when you have eaten and are full— then beware, lest you forget the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” Deuteronomy 6: 10-13 

While my daily prayer is that I am able to forgive and love others as Jesus has loved me, I never want to allow myself to forget my beginnings; I want to use my suffering, tragedy, loss, hunger, struggle, and wounds of my past to help and be a blessing to those who aren’t as fortunate. I have been given a chance, not because I am better or righteous; it’s far from it! It’s only God’s Grace! For that, I am forever humbled & amazed by His love!

Beautiful downtown Kigali (on the top of the hill), the Capital of Rwanda

It is for this the reason that I weep for people who are hurting, I can relate to them. People in need, poor, homeless, move me with compassion! I have been given a chance, a voice, and an opportunity to serve God. I eternally pray that I always seize opportunities God makes available for me to act! Simply put, I am able to truly love, because I am loved so well, by the Lord!

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory.” 1 Samuel 2:8