Alex Browne photo Early childhood educator, and longtime St. Mark’s Ocean Park congregation member, Barb Walks with some of the toys she has collected to take to children in Rwanda as part of her mission in August.

In support of Rwanda

South Surrey educator Barb Walks heads to Africa to teach important play skills

It’s hard – particularly in our largely privileged and protected society – to imagine children having to be taught how to play.

But that’s a reality for whole generations of children and their caregivers in the African nation of Rwanda, where poverty, genocide and disease have made survival the primary imperative of childhood.

Now, thanks to a growing recognition of societal need in the country – and with the help of outside organizations such as the Embrace Rwanda International Society, a Vancouver-based Christian charity – play for children is also on the list of priorities along with other initiatives to promote sustainable, self-sufficient industry and agriculture for adults.

“Embrace Rwanda started 11 years ago, and some of the programs are beginning to pay their own way,” explained South Surrey resident Barb Walks, a longtime member of the congregation of St. Mark’s Ocean Park, who will spend August on a mission to the town of Shiyogwe, about 100 miles southwest of the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

This Saturday at 6 p.m., St Mark’s will host a fundraising dinner at the church, 12953 20 Ave., to help raise money to help children and families in Rwanda through her trip.

The evening will feature Rwandan singing and cuisine (which turns out to be not that spicy, for those who worry about such things), a market selling Rwandan goods and a presentation by Embrace Rwanda executive director Hilary King.

An early childhood educator approaching retirement, Walks is qualified to help teach pre-school children – and their caregivers, largely teenagers – the importance of play.

She’s just winding down a 36-year career with the City of Surrey’s Parks and Recreation department guiding pre-school children – and parents – in play and learning programs.

“Research says that most of learning how to use the brain comes through play,” Walks said.

But that has been neglected in Rwanda where employment has been so important for families that the needs of children have taken a back seat.

“There, they just leave children in the community, whether the caregivers have training or no training, and often the children are left fending for themselves in the villages,” Walks said.

It’s hardly surprising in a society that is still dealing, collectively and individually, with post-traumatic stress disorder and grandparents are either dead, or unable to cope with the responsibilities of child-rearing.

“We have to teach mothers how to sit with their babies and bounce them on their knee, how to play with them and look them in the eye and talk to them,” Walks said.

“Even just giving them a ball, or teaching them to take paper bags and roll them up to make a ball is a big thing.”

Through the church and the community Walks has been collecting small, gently-used toys to take to the children, with an emphasis on things she can fit in her suitcases.

“There are dominoes, because that’s about counting, and puppets, toys to hug, stacking blocks, baby dolls, cars – they’re a dime a dozen here – and musical instruments,” she said. “When we go over there our suitcases will be full of toys, but we’ll bring back handcrafts and fabrics and other handmade items that can be sold here to raise money for the cause – the suitcases won’t be wasted.”

It’s going to be a learning experience as well as a teaching experience, Walks predicted.

“We’re going to be visiting 18 teachers who are responsible for 500 children; many of the caregivers have between 30 and 80 kids they look after. I don’t deal with nearly that many.”

The opportunity to go to Rwanda came out of the blue, she said – although the seeds of interest were planted three years ago when King made a presentation at St. Mark’s.

“It wasn’t something I was looking for,” she said, adding that it made sense when she considered her background and what needs in Rwanda are.

Although Walks is an experienced traveller – she’s been to Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and even Ecuador – this will be the first time she has visited Africa, she said.

“I get one day of African safari – the rest of the time is going to be occupied by the mission,” she said.

“But if I take one day out for me, that’s plenty.”

Tickets for the dinner ($25/$12.50 for children) are available at 30daysinRwanda@gmail.com