Millsaps College junior Jean Leon Iragena wants his homeland of Rwanda to be known not only as the land of a thousand hills, but also as the land of 11 million readers. With the help of the Millsaps community, he has established a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving the reading and writing skills of Rwandan children. For the name of the foundation, he chose "Isaro" - which means "bead" and is a sign of smartness in his native language.
The Isaro Foundation is raising funds to cover the costs of shipping over 3,000 donated books to Rwandan children. Click here to donate today.
In less than a year, the Isaro Foundation has provided Rwanda schools and libraries with 4,000 books and started reading clubs in schools. Power of the Pen, an Ohio-based non-profit, learned of the foundation's work and sent three representatives to Rwanda to show teachers how to incorporate more creative writing in their lessons.
There now are American and Rwandan arms of the foundation working closely together. Volunteers in Mississippi and other states are collecting books and raising money for shipping costs, and the Isaro Foundation and the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda are partnering to promote the Everyone Reads campaign.
Isaro Foundation founder Jean Leon Iragena displaying e-readers provided for Rwandan students
Twice Iragena has met with the Rwandan minister of education. In June the foundation was presented the RINA (Rwandan International Network Association) Humanitarian Award in Washington, D.C., at the Urugwiro Conference, a yearly event attended by Rwandans who live in America and other friends of Rwanda.
This year's conference emphasized the role of youth in the development of Rwanda. The organization's president, Dr. Yohari Kayinamura, noted that it is time for Rwandans of all ages "to move from quiet observers to active players."
Iragena credits his mother with providing him with the sound advice that led him to become an active player at an early age.
"My father, who was a mathematician, died when I was five," Iragena said. "My mother had a very limited education, but she knew where the richness comes from - knowledge. She struggled so my brothers and I could go to school, so we struggled by studying hard to make sure her money was not spent in vain."
When the scores were released on the national exams administered at the end of high school, Iragena had earned a Rwandan Presidential Scholarship to attend Millsaps College. "The top students are sent to the U.S. to get a better education, return home, and develop the country," he explained.
Rwandan students taking part in the Isaro Foundation's efforts to improve literacy
A small, land-locked and hilly country in central Africa, Rwanda is struggling to expand its economic base beyond a subsistent agricultural economy. With 43 percent of the population under the age of 15, literacy is crucial to achieving this goal.
During the break between high school and college, Iragena took a story he heard at summer camp and turned it into a novel. He said the story - about a girl loved by two boys - also depicts the struggle between traditional and modern Rwandan cultures.
Although the book was eventually published in his homeland, he said, "I found it difficult to find an editor and a publisher in Rwanda where society does not like to read and write. I realized there was a problem, and I started thinking about how I could be a part of the solution."
When he arrived in the U.S., he said, "I quickly saw that Americans like to read and write. I began thinking about how I could take that culture to my country." During his freshman year, he began researching how he could start a foundation to foster a love of reading and writing in his homeland.
In April 2011, Iragena met two visiting Millsaps alumni, twin brothers Kevin and Ken Blackwell, who had a special interest in Rwanda through the support their church had been providing to schools and orphanages there. The Blackwells - Monticello, Miss., natives and 1986 graduates of Millsaps - live in Connecticut but have maintained close ties to their alma mater.
Millsaps alum Ken Blackwell and Bishop Augustin Ahimana of the Anglican Diocese of Kivu celebrate partnership through the Isaro Foundation
Kevin Blackwell served as a Millsaps College trustee from 2000-2009, and both were on campus when Ken Blackwell received the Student Council for College Advancement Award for Global Philanthropist of the Year. He was recognized for his work in rebuilding an Anglican school in a remote part of northwestern Rwanda.
After the Blackwells returned home from their visit to Millsaps, Iragena stayed in contact with them through e-mail.
"I shared my idea about wanting to start a foundation," Iragena said. "They started giving me some ideas on how this would work."
During the summer of 2011, Iragena visited the Blackwells in Connecticut, and together they began laying the groundwork to establish a foundation in the U.S. that could accept tax deductible donations to further the cause of literacy in Rwanda. The foundation was officially launched in October 2011, with Iragena as CEO and founder and Ken Blackwell as chairman.
In addition to American and Rwandan arms of the foundation, there are now two collegiate chapters - one at Millsaps and one at Oklahoma Christian University started by Rwandan students enrolled there.
While the foundation's initial focus has been on collecting new and used books for shipping to Rwanda, the Blackwell brothers - who have enjoyed highly successful careers in engineering and technology - believe there may be a better way to provide books to the children of Rwanda. "I am an engineer, and I believe in technology," Ken Blackwell said.
In July, he made his fourth trip to Africa, this time taking along 30 Amazon Kindles, loaded with classic literature, dictionaries, Bibles, textbooks, and books for pleasure reading.
The Church of the Apostles in Fairfield, Conn., where the Blackwells are members, purchased the Kindles to establish the African country's first e-Library at a secondary school in the village of Bigogwe.
Amazon was supportive of the pilot project, making changes to its website to allow Ken Blackwell to monitor the Kindles in Rwanda and push new content to them once he returned to the U.S.
"I liken it to the proliferation of cell phones in countries like Rwanda," Ken said. "They skipped the land-line phase all together and went straight to cell. I think school libraries will do the same and go straight to electronic readers."
For Iragena, however, it doesn't matter whether Rwandans read on paper or on screen - as long as they read ... and he remains committed to that goal while inspiring others in the Millsaps community.
"I am constantly amazed by Jean Leon," said Michael Bell, a junior who is second vice-president of the Millsaps Student Body Association. "He is someone who not only thinks big, but does exactly what his heart tells him to do."
Dr. David Davis, associate professor of history and associate dean of arts and letters, describes Iragena as "a great example of initiative and self-drive to improve the life of the larger community. He is a great model for our students by demonstrating that, 'You don't rest on your laurels. You build on them.'"
Kevin Blackwell agrees. "Jean Leon is not satisfied to say 'I've got mine. My future is assured. Why rock the boat?' Instead, he wants to know what he can do to help others. In a world that might make him selfish, he's a pretty self-less guy," Blackwell said.
For more about the Isaro Foundation, visit www.isarofoundation.org