It's 9:54 a.m. EST and my computer dings with an incoming email. The subject line reads "GoFundMe site."
My heart smiles. Sara Jo Light and her husband Ray Venoski are about to do something phenomenal—again.
'What can we do?'
Three years ago at Christmastime, Ray and Sara Jo asked for donations instead of Christmas presents. They had just returned from an immersion trip to Rwanda, where they saw firsthand the effects of the country's horrific past.
Their guide, a man named Mugisha Davidson, took them to Mbyo, one of six reconciliation villages—communities where around 3,000 survivors and perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide live side by side. Convicted killers reintegrate into society by publicly apologizing for their crimes. "They share growing crops (maize and cassava), and they even share bank accounts to pay for their health insurance in an effort to heal and forgive," says Sara Jo.
These reconciliation villages were established by Rwanadan President Paul Kagame's policy of ethnic reconciliation as well as Prison Fellowship Rwanda, with funds from the U.S., U.N., and others. A 2018 survey showed that 92.5% of Rwandans feel that reconciliation has been achieved. Yet, as they listened to the villagers' experiences, Sara Jo and Ray learned that many of the people are still struggling to get by.
"We were so moved," Sara Jo says, "I was crying. The stuff these people had gone through was just horrible. I asked Mugisha what they need. He said the kids aren't getting the right nutrition. They need a cow."
With a herd of cows, the villagers can be self-sufficient, selling the milk and cheese to support their families and improve the health of their children.
When they returned home, the idea of helping this village wouldn't leave her. That Christmas, she and Ray matched the donations of their friends and family. The outcome was tremendous. "Our friends raised enough money that we got them ten cows. It was covered on [Rwanda] national TV, and the [Rwandan] government promised them free vet care for their cows," she says.
Ten cows were delivered the week after Rwanda's Week of Remembrance of the genocide.
Through tears, Sara Jo tells me that she and Ray chose not to go so that they could buy the tenth cow and that she swore, "If we are able to help them yet again, we have to be there."
More good through more people
This past November, Sara Jo set up the gofundme.com site, "Cows and water for a wonderful village." They will raise money to provide fresh water, as the villagers' only source of water is the rain water they capture or water from a distant stream.
This time, Sara Jo and Ray have a whole new set of friends with whom to share their cause—their friends and neighbors at Wind Crest.
Sara Jo had consulted for Erickson Living about ten years prior. "From that experience, I planned on moving to Wind Crest," she says. "When I worked for Erickson, I became so educated about a different way to go about your life as you age."
She says that among all her experiences working with major corporations around the world, "I had never met a group of people who were genuinely concerned with the customer. I never saw [Erickson Living] cut corners; they were always focused on what's best for the residents. Their actions demonstrated the deep-seeded values of Erickson Living."
She knew then that when she and Ray tired of mowing the lawn and fixing the roof and cooking dinner, they would move to Wind Crest. They joined the priority list and planned to wait for new construction in 2021. But when an apartment home that met all their criteria became available, they didn't want to miss their opportunity.
Now, settled in and as active as ever, they're so happy to spend this winter at Wind Crest. "It's so much easier than our previous home. It's like day and night," says Sara Jo.
They've made many friends through the community's various interest groups—table tennis and woodworking for Ray, the diversity and inclusion committee for Sara Jo. "We've met absolutely wonderful people who we imagine will be friends for the rest of our lives," she says.
One of those friends, Candy Kane, has opened Sara Jo's eyes to the opportunity to make her reconciliation village effort even more successful than before. With a community of more than a thousand people and the resources to communicate their message easily, like the in-house TV station, newsletter, and My Erickson app, they hope to raise $35,000 to provide permanent fresh water and a cow for each of the families who don't yet have one.
And this time, they will be there to see the joy on the villagers' faces.
To donate, visit gofundme.com/f/cows-amp-water-for-a-wonderful-village.