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Dublin High School Alum’s Love for Africa Changes Lives

April 9, 2013

Kelsey Finnegan in Rwanda with Widows of Genocide Victims“I wonder if anyone in this country was not affected by the genocide and its collective madness. The case of Rwanda is particularly odd in that ordinary citizens became ‘genocidaires‘, with neighbors literally killing neighbors. I asked my Rwandan friend if after witnessing such a thing he believed that people were inherently good or inherently bad. He said neither. ‘All people in the world are capable of being good or bad. It’s not something you’re born with, it’s something you become.'” – Kelsey Finnegan’s blog.

The last time I spoke with Dublin High School Class of 2007 and UC Santa Barbara Class of 2012 graduate Kelsey Finnegan was in 2010, when Kelsey was visiting family in Dublin before heading back to college. We spoke about her experiences in Hohoe, Ghana volunteering for, and helping develop, the Happy Kids orphanage. A lot has changed since we last spoke, but one thing has remained the same – Kelsey’s passion for making a difference in the lives of others and her love of the African continent.

This time we spoke over an international Skype connection, with Kelsey in Kigali, sitting in a cafe, surrounded by the clatter and chatter of Rwanda’s bustling capital, while I sat thousands of miles away in the comfort and quiet of a suburban home.

James Morehead: Before we talk about your charitable work in Rwanda and Ghana, tell me about your path to completing your degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Kelsey Finnegan: “To be honest, I didn’t take high school very seriously. When choosing a college I knew I ultimately wanted to attend a UC school and because my grades weren’t as strong as they needed to be, I decided to start at a community college and then transfer into the UC system. I chose Santa Barbara City College, which is one of the best city colleges in the U.S., became really invested in school, and did very well academically.

“When I started university I wanted to go into journalism because I love writing and ultimately I earned a degree in communications from UC Santa Barbara. I went to Africa for the first time when I was halfway through my degree and realized at that point that I wanted to do more global development work, but it was late in my schooling to shift my major, so I tailored my communication degree to international work. I studied inter-cultural communication and advocacy, and also earned a minor in global peace and security, which was really interesting.

“Along the way, I decided to study abroad. I chose South Africa because it is a more established African country, the education system is good and I could study what was relevant to my career, which is in development.

“During my time in South Africa, I studied at the University of Cape Town. I was one of the only people in my program who sought out a job while I was there, and I worked for a small non-profit based out of Cape Town. I spent a lot of my time working with refugees and I also studied genocide and poverty while I was there. It was really, really interesting and provided me with a jump start into my career.”

Morehead: Since we last spoke, what have you learned about how one person can have an impact on the lives of ordinary people?

Kelsey Finnegan at the Happy Kids Orphanage in Hohoe Ghana during Christmas

Kelsey at the Happy Kids orphanage

Finnegan: “When we first spoke I was just starting to have large responsibilities at Happy Kids in Ghana, and at that point I was unsure as to what I could do while I was still so young and in college. But as time went on I realized that I was capable of running an organization, so over time my responsibilities increased, and I started planning more projects for the orphanage. I created a girls sewing program, I built more classrooms, we opened an Internet cafe, I started a nutritional porridge program where we distributed food to children in the community. At that point, the orphanage became my responsibility, in addition to the school which educates one hundred kids. I ultimately registered Happy Kids as an NGO to manage the facility, raise money and work on strategic planning.

“I was also accepted into the Clinton Global Initiative University; the conference was hosted by President Bill Clinton, and included leading development experts as well as celebrities like Sean Penn. We learned practical skills for development work. It was an amazing experience, being in the room with people my age, who were still in university but had worked on international projects.

“I was connected with my current job in Rwanda through one of my professors who does a lot of anti-genocide work. She connected me with an organization that offered me an internship in Rwanda. After completing my UCSB degree in South Africa, I returned briefly to the U.S. and then booked a one-way ticket to Rwanda on my credit card, and left. The internship in Rwanda was only supposed to be three months, and I didn’t have any experience working with genocide survivors, but I learned quickly and just last week my boss (who is based in the U.K.) asked me to become a permanent member on the staff as a Project Officer. It looks like I’m staying in Rwanda for a long time!

“In terms of what I’ve learned, it’s hard to sum up into words. A few years ago I never would have anticipated that this would be where I am, that I was capable of planning things like this and working with people at such a capacity in order to help them. But I’ve realized that while I’m here I don’t get a lot of guidance, and so I just have to do everything that I can do to make things happen, and I don’t necessarily doubt myself with new ideas. Every one of the projects that I’ve come up with were things I’d never thought would have happened: like how great it would be to teach kids how to sew, so that they would have an income-generating skill. I realized that if I have an idea I should act on it, and see what I can do to make an idea a reality.”

Morehead: Tell more more about your work with the victims of genocide and how organizations like the group you work for can make a difference.

Finnegan: “The work in Rwanda has been amazing. I work primarily with genocide widows, women who have not only escaped genocide but have watched all of their family members murdered, and who have experienced really significant trauma. Even though the Rwandan genocide occurred almost nineteen years ago, the victims still suffer the same consequences as if it was yesterday. It’s intense. Working in this environment is sometimes emotionally exhausting and it is really challenging to figure out ways to address such a horrible history. But at the same time the majority of my work ends up being positive because we’ve provided these women with business training, access to counseling, legal support and in some cases given them resources to buy food. We guide them through a loan process and they are able to apply for a loan from a bank to start a new business.

“The majority of the time when I’m speaking to the women they tell me their stories and challenges, how they still have recurring memories of the genocide and how their homes were destroyed and they still live in broken down homes. They lost everything so they weren’t able to support themselves. A lot of them also have HIV / AIDS from rape. They live with these challenges on a day-to-day basis, but the positive part of my work is seeing them transform their lives, getting the chance to have a productive life, and to move forward.

“The organization that I work with also does everything from giving solar lamps to children, so they can study at night, to giving goats to people, to advocating for legal rights for survivors. It is incredible to see what the Rwandan government has done with the aid that they have received. They’ve received a lot of aid and done something with it, which isn’t always the case. The roads are paved, there are some social services and there is a lot of growth in Rwanda. It’s really interesting to be in a country where people have experienced the worst thing that anyone could ever imagine and still have the capacity to rebuild.”

Morehead: For people reading this who are skeptical of charitable organizations because of something they’ve seen on the news or read on the Web, how can they have comfort that their donation will have an impact?

Finnegan: “While there are some bad organizations out there, I think a lot of what people hear are rumors and stereotypes. When you look at the financial reports of organizations like Oxfam and CARE they do donate a significant portion of their proceeds to projects. There are obviously some organizations that don’t, but it can be relatively easy to seek out organizations that do great work. There are websites like Charity Navigator that rate non-profits based on how they dole out their funds. On the one hand, as someone who works for a non-profit, I understand the scrutiny that goes into finances, but it’s pretty difficult to find an organization that gives 100% of its proceeds to the people because there is someone like me that has to be planning, implementing and tracking the projects. To a certain degree there is always going to be staff that has to be paid, but I think it is pretty easy to find the great organizations.

“The organization I work for isn’t huge. We’re based out of London and we only have ten staff members in Rwanda, and one staff member in the U.K., yet we provide more support for genocide survivors than any other organization. Even though our organization is small, we’re able to get a lot done – we’ve helped over 100,000 survivors. I think there are so many other great organizations out there, it’s just a matter of not being discouraged or daunted by what you hear, and actually taking the time to research the countries and causes that interest you, and the charities that support those causes.”

Morehead: What are your plans going forward including Happy Kids?

Kelsey Finnegan in Hohoe - Ghana - Africa 1

Finnegan: “I sometimes tell people Happy Kids is my heart and soul. I love Rwanda and I love traveling, but Happy Kids is my responsibility. When you take on something like committing to help kids, it’s a lifelong endeavor. These kids don’t have parents or people that are taking responsibility for their lives, and I turned out to be the person that took on the responsibility. I love the kids, I miss them, I even Facebook chat with some of the kids because they use Internet cafes to go on Facebook.

“In the future I’d like Happy Kids to be able to stand on its own and generate an income that supports and educates all of the kids, and that it will be a model facility for development. In terms of where I’ll be, it’s hard to say because a year ago I had no idea that I’d be living in Rwanda, I never thought that I’d have the job that I now have. Right now I’m developing a project for young university students in Rwanda that are also genocide survivors and we’re hoping that project will deliver training and entrepreneurship so that they can access quality employment.

“I definitely want to go back to grad school at some point to get a Masters Degree in Development, and my dream school is Columbia in New York. But I also recognize that it’s difficult to do development work from a desk in America, so I’ll try to stay in Africa as long as I have the opportunity before returning to school. Looking further out, maybe I’ll end up working for the U.N., or another big organization doing great things. But my focus is on development in countries experiencing conflict, or recovering from conflict.”

Morehead: Any thoughts for students inspired by your story?

Finnegan: “I think that a lot of people can be scared of the stories they hear about Africa, and that can push them away from volunteering; but I believe if you have something like this in mind then go for it. Recognize that taking this step will entirely define your life, in an amazing way, and that it will be one of the best things you’ll ever do. Nobody I’ve ever spoken to regrets coming to Africa.

“People always ask me if I’m ‘safe and healthy’. I think it’s important to understand that not all of Africa is falling apart; a lot of it is growing and developing. I mean, I’m sitting in a cafe, connected to the Internet and drinking coffee, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

“Having a job that you love and that stands for something makes a difference for me. It’s a lot easier to be motivated and happy working when you know what you do makes a difference in the life of others. I wish more people would pursue this type of work.”

Kelsey Finnegan’s Video Journal “I am not a statistic”

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  1. April 22, 2013 8:22 pm

    Good job Kelsey. You’re doing very important and admirable work. For what it’s worth, I’m proud of you. Keep it up!


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