Rebuilding lives means more than just providing the basic necessities, and sometimes art can play a part in building a future that involves more than basic survival. Those are the hopes, at the very least, of Julie Epp and Ivy Gowen.
Since she first visited Rwanda in 2010, bringing two hockey bags of donated shoes to a local orphanage, Epp has been fundraising to provide this orphanage with the basic necessities as well as opportunities to develop creative skills. The Kimisagara Orphanage is run by one man, a former street kid and mechanic.
“[He] just takes kids off the street and tries to house them and feed them and give them education,” says Epp. “[He’s] a mechanic, and all the money he makes at this mechanic shop supports 100 kids.”
When Epp first visited the orphanage, it had no electricity.
“All the kids walked in carrying candles, so that stuck with me.”
When she returned to Canada, she raised $8,000 and brought it back to Rwanda, to build a new dormitory building and to see what else was needed – be it water filtration systems, mosquito nets, or crates of laundry soap.
In March 2013, when Epp was joined by her friend Ivy Gowen, they spontaneously decided to ask for donations, and showed up at Kimisagara with 10 cameras.
“[It] became such a big part of our time there because the kids really loved using the cameras, and it became something that we did every single day; when we’d visit the orphanage we’d bring the cameras.”
Epp and Gowen would return home and empty the memory cards, then bring the cameras back the next day. The end result was 16,000 photographs, as well as joy and a sense of community as the orphanage’s kids learned and shared skills.
As they are both involved in the arts in one form or another—Epp is an art therapist, graphic designer, and videographer, while Gowen is a tattoo artist, photographer, and graphic designer—including art in their support to the orphanage was a natural extension.
“[W]hen countries are at war, the first thing that goes is culture,” says Gowen.
Through the arts, Gowen believes that these kids are starting to gain some cultural insight into their history and backgrounds, all while rebuilding a cultural identity.
There is also a practical side, as these kids may not be able to find conventional jobs after high school. Gowen sees teaching them about photography—and hopefully Photoshop and other design programs later on—as “implementing self-sustaining goals and activities that will give them future employment.”
Believe it or not, the street kids of Kimisagara Orphanage are holding their first exhibition this month, at Winnipeg’s Tara Davis Studio Boutique. Though they won’t be here to see it in person, 100 per cent of sales from the Through Their Eyes photography exhibition is going straight back to Kimisagara.
This ethic runs through all of the fundraising work Epp and Gowen are committed to.
“We pay for own costs to travel and our own costs for everything. [ . . . ] We don’t take a dollar of that money,” says Epp.
While they are currently not registered as an official non-profit, or affiliated with any religious organization, Epp and Gowen maintain the credibility of their fundraising efforts through daily blog posts and updates while they are visiting the orphanage. Gowen and Epp want those who support their project to see what they are doing, and to know that even if people have only donated $20, that full $20 is going to the kids of Kimisagara.
They’ll be returning to Rwanda on Dec. 17, but in the meantime, there is a lot of work to be done. Besides their day jobs, they held a fundraising benefit concert on Nov. 9, as well as an opening reception for the Through Their Eyes exhibit on Nov. 14. They’re also asking for donations of cameras, cell phones with SIM card slots, or used laptops to take back with them.
While they hope to grow their project one day—and welcome the support and input of anyone else interested in joining them—they have no intention of slowing down their efforts to help improve the lives of the street kids of Kimisagara.
“It’s for the kids. They’re just kids, after all,” says Gowen.
Learn more about this project at www.streetkidsofrwanda.blogspot.ca, and visit the opening reception of Through Their Eyes on Nov. 14 from 5-9 p.m. at Tara Davis Studio Boutique, 246 McDermot Avenue. The exhibit will be open until Nov. 30. You can also visit their GoFundMe campaign at www.gofundme.com/streetkidsofrwanda.