Hope Rises in 'The Land of Horrors'
O’Keefe, ‘80, looks back on life-changing trip to Rwanda
They are faces she can’t get out of her mind. Stories that are now etched in her consciousness — that haunt, or even inspire her on a daily basis.
For Kathy O’Keefe, a 1980 alumna and Flagler College’s former alumni director, the nine-day trip to Kigali, Rwanda, this past summer was something she could only describe as a life-changing experience.
“I don’t really know how you process [everything I experienced],” she said of the trip, which coincided with the 15-year anniversary of the genocide that killed an estimated 1 million Rwandans. “I think what you do is you just say, ‘It’s a part of my life now.’ Every day I think of certain people who might as well be family members.”
The trip was organized by Seattle’s Luis Palau Ministry, which has been working in Rwanda on a number of service projects. O’Keefe took part in several, including helping to pour concrete floors in what will become homes for women and children who were victims of the genocide.
But for O’Keefe, the trip wasn’t just about service or getting a better grasp of Rwanda’s horrific past. Rather, it was as much about building relationships and making connections with women who had suffered through unimaginable atrocities, as well as orphaned children, many of whom are living with HIV/AIDS.
“You go in and every single person you interact with is a survivor, on some level, of a murder in their family,” she said. “So that is really tough because people want to share their story, and when they do it’s just heartbreaking.”
O’Keefe said she struggled to comprehend how a nation could be gripped by such brutality. But she also said it is a country that is moving forward — focused more on its future than what tore it apart in the past.
“They are an incredible people with a vision of reconciliation and renewal for Rwanda,” she said. “They believe the tribal lines have, at least, blurred, and they have an incredible hope for the future.”
O’Keefe, who stepped down as Flagler’s alumni director in late 2009 to pursue new opportunities, said she intends to go back to Rwanda to see people she now feels so close to.
“Their story has become a part of our lives,” she said. “It is not the place to go if you don’t want to own the story.”
O’Keefe wasn’t the only Flagler grad on the trip. Her son, Tucker, ‘06, and alumnus Ray Spencer, ’94, also traveled with the group.
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