Couple on mission to give vulnerable children education

What can you do with Rwf 500? Perhaps, you can visit a ramshackle eatery to buy some food but with this measly amount, are you sure that it's going to assuage your biting hunger? When you decide to buy an airtime card with it, will talk till you drop dead?
The couple with their two children born in Rwanda. (Joseph Oindo)
The couple with their two children born in Rwanda. (Joseph Oindo)

What can you do with Rwf 500? Perhaps, you can visit a ramshackle eatery to buy some food but with this measly amount, are you sure that it’s going to assuage your biting hunger? When you decide to buy an airtime card with it, will talk till you drop dead?

May be you can decide to buy a soft drink with this little amount to quench your thirst. But that might just do for the moment.

Yet, this is the whole amount a vulnerable family at Ngwa cell, Mukingo sector in Gatagara, Nyanza town needs to ensure that their child received education they hope will pull them out of hopeless indigence and poverty.

This has been made possible with the help an America couple, Todd Ellingson and his wife Andria that came to Rwanda five years ago and established a private Christian school, City of Joy, to cater for education needs of vulnerable children.

Todd says, “We are Christians and sensed God is leading us to live a life different from that of the American Dream. God’s Dream for us was to live in Rwanda and learn from our neighbors what it means to be a follower of Jesus: to encourage one another in our faith.”

This need to encourage each other in faith is what led them to establish a Christian school that they hope will secure the children’s education and make them useful members of society.

Children gather at the assembly before classes begin. (Joseph Oindo)

He says that when they came to Rwanda, they talked to local leaders and they were informed that the area of greatest need and impact was education. Some children were not attending school because their families lacked enough resources like books, money and enough food to put on the table. Therefore, they saw the need not only to start a nursery and primary school, but also a tailoring school where vulnerable adults could be trained and have the necessary skills to be resourceful with their lives.

“Our main goal is not only to educate academically but to build relationships that will share Jesus and his hope for a better tomorrow,” adds Todd.

The couple who have now been married for seven years, and have two children born here in Rwanda, says that they have a deep emotional attachment to this country owing to the affable nature they’ve been received by and integrated themselves into the Rwanda community.

“We tell people our children are Rwandans! They laugh because of the blonde hair and fair complexion. Rwanda is truly home because our children were born here. We are excited to raise our children here so they can also learn from our community.  I would much rather raise our children here than the States! That’s how impressed I am with our community here,” says Todd.

He says that at the City of Joy, all the deserving students are chosen by local village elders, and each village around Gatagara is given several slots for the neediest families. The sewing students, he adds, are also chosen by local leaders.

“We are happy that so far, we’ve managed to graduate 80 students from our sewing school. Some of them have happily flown from this incubation nest to open their own shops and are now making a living for their families. It makes us happy,” he adds.

He states that right now, the school has enrolled 168 children in K2, K3, P1, P2, and they are currently building new classrooms and they hope to go full day classes by July. “We hope to one day expand those numbers. But we are dedicated to keeping classroom size around 20 students. We also offer a 12 month sewing program that usually has around 30 students.”

To reinforce that their mission is anchored on Christian values of helping the less fortunate in the society as exemplified by the life and the mission of Jesus, Todd says that they are also in the process of building a church and hiring a pastor so that the students will not only have the chance to receive education but also have a holistic approach of spiritual guidance to help them live piously.

The City of Joy has a staff of 10 on the payroll drawn from local community, something Todd says, is also important because they’re able to provide for some families through giving them formal employment to help in the management of the institution.

For now, he clarifies that the students come to the school but go back to their respective homes in the evening; something he hopes won’t be the case for so long because they are sourcing for funds to build a full-fledged boarding school to enable them have as much time with the vulnerable children as possible.

But where do they get their funding to run the centre? I ask him. “We are funded almost entirely through private donations. Families pay Rwf500 per semester. We try to get outside people to sponsor a student to pay for the operating costs. We also speak to groups when we visit the states and fundraise for projects. We are truly a ministry of faith and rely on people’s generosity.”

Children with their teacher Jeanne in class. (Joseph Oindo)

He says that their selfless mission was informed by the premise that each and every child needs quality education, saying that several of the poorest children coming from the poorest families in the neighborhood become marginalized and need that extra help to get education that would see them change their situation.

“We hope to create a model that gives special emphasis to those in greatest need and offers full day classes to emphasize the importance of lifelong learning. God loves all his children and wants them to succeed. City of Joy is committed to this end.” He says.

Todd adds that they also hope to reproduce an education model that creates an opportunity for students to become what God created, and wanted them to be, saying that despite missing opportunity through education, several children have the potential to do greater things in life if only they’re given the opportunity to excel in whatever they’re doing.

Asked how their philanthropic work has affected their hearts, Todd says that as a Christian couple, they feel contented and happy that they are helping in spreading all that Jesus stood for in his mission on earth.

“Even though we give of ourselves we feel like we have received so much more in return. As followers of Jesus we look to Jesus’ life as an example of how he gave himself to those around him. We are grateful for our neighbours who have embraced us as one of their own,” he says.

He says that the couple has enjoyed each and every moment of their stay in the country, adding that they’ve been encouraged by the kindness of the people in this country who have made them to feel at home.

“We’ve become Rwandans because all that we can miss are found here. There’s great love, there’s great environment, there’s great climate. This country has become our second home now, and we’re just absolutely happy to raise our children here,” he says.

But he adds that their biggest challenge so far has been mastering the Kinyarwanda language, something they’ve working relentlessly to solve. “We truly feel loved! Our biggest challenge is the language. We hired a language teacher last year and this helped us understand the grammar. Kinyarwanda is tough!”

About Todd and Andria Ellingson

Todd Ellingson was born in a small town called Crookston in the state of Minnesota in 1964. He received his undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministries and started his Master of Divinity at Luther Seminary. He began in full time vocational ministry before he finished his Master’s degree. 

His wife Andria was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1980. She received her first degree in Early Childhood Education and mastered in Education from Arizona State University. 

The couple met while Todd ran a retreat center and Andria was on a woman’s retreat with her church, North Phoenix Baptist Church.

He says: “I joked about it saying that there were 200 women and one man. The odds were in my favor! We have been married for seven years. We have had two children in Rwanda, both born in Kigali.” 



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