MEET MAMA JEANNE
Mamas in the Village have arguably the most significant position when it comes to guiding, supporting and helping the Agahozo-Shalom kids. They live together and address any and all issues that a parent would. If a student is sick, misbehaving, having trouble in school, struggling to cope with their past, or having difficulty living by the core values of the Village, Mamas are there, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They come from a variety of backgrounds. Many have children of their own; many are widowed, have struggled and lived through challenging times. Despite their own familial obligations, every day the 32 Agahozo-Shalom Mamas commit themselves wholeheartedly to raising the children in the Village and helping them transform into responsible, independent citizens.
One such leading lady, Mama Jeanne of a Senior 6 (12th grade) family of girls, has been in the Village for four years. “I was just looking for a job,” she says laughing. “When I came to my interview they told me that this is not a job like any other. It is a mission. You are a mom to these students like you are with your own kids.” She recalls thinking, “I am already a mom. No kid can be too difficult for me. I have experience.” After four years, Mama Jeanne admits that she, and all the Mamas in the Village, have met kids that challenge them in ways they could never have anticipated. “Some kids accept you… with others it takes time… There have been times when I cried. I prayed and asked for strength… I accepted this mission.” She says the most lasting impact that her role as a Mama has had on her is the, “Feeling that I am important for something. Living with kids who never had the chance to have someone who could advise them, support them… to respond kindly and accept them with care.”
Mama Jeanne notes how encouraging and exciting it is to see change in her girls. “It gives you hope… they are wonderful.” In fact, she recounts that she had one particularly challenging girl in her family. She challenged Mama Jeanne and the Village in every way imaginable: stealing, shouting, leaving school without permission, treating others rudely and pushing authority as far as it would go. Mama Jeanne says of her approach, “I tried to swallow the bad she did to me, even if I had pain in my heart. I used to bring gifts, show her strength, encourage good behavior and say, ‘Ah, did you see she has a clean cupboard, she cleaned the house…’ And, now we are best friends.”
The students who come to Agahozo-Shalom often come from challenging backgrounds. Many have difficulty trusting people and have had to fight to live. Many have not had a role model in their life, let alone someone to call Mama. It takes time and patience to help them learn and embody the core values of the Village and develop new ways of interacting with the world. The Mamas at Agahozo-Shalom are key to building these skills in our kids. Mama Jeanne describes the conversations she has had with her girls. “You know where you are from. Why are you here? The truth is not easy. I want you to remember. I want you to take this occasion, this opportunity… you will not live in this house for all your life. Remember, one day you will have to go and get yours.”
“I have learned so much humility,” Mama Jeanne acknowledges. During the interview for this blog, one of Mama Jeanne’s “daughters” entered her room and went straight to her clothing cupboard. Laughing, Mama Jeanne said, “See now, they come in my room, they take my clothes, they say that they want to be sick so they can come and sleep with mom. I enjoy it!” Mama Jeanne’s Senior 6 girls will graduate in January and move on with their lives. She has a lot of hope and confidence that they will be able to conquer life’s challenges, and feels good about what they have achieved together. Being a Mama to 16 kids at Agahozo-Shalom is truly a uniquely challenging position, though, certainly, for those with enough strength of character, a gratifying and lifelong endeavor.
Submitted by year-long volunteer, Shira Liff-Grieff