Welcome to our first issue of The Strongest Oak Foundation News!

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In this issue...

Message from the Managing Director

Dear friends,

An ancient Chinese philosopher once said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Eighteen months ago, The Strongest Oak Foundation (TSO) took that first step by committing to two extraordinary young Rwandans, Charles Mugabe and Steven Shyaka, to do whatever was required to help pave their path to success and financial sustainability. Little did we know of the twists and turns in which this incredible journey would lead us.  

Today, I am pleased to report that TSO has made some meaningful progress in fostering some of Africa’s leaders of tomorrow:

  • identified eight young “Strongest Oaks” who have overcome tremendous obstacles in their lives (including genocide, war, rape and extreme poverty) and are mentoring them to achieve their primary goals in life;
  • sponsored these Oaks to attend post-secondary studies and training schools;
  • launched an internship program to provide certain Oaks with practical business experience required to launch their professional careers;
  • opened TSO chapters in Rwanda, DR Congo, and Uganda (with Burkina Faso coming soon in 2012), led by our exceptional local partners (Oak Leaders);
  • built a global executive team of eight talented and hard-working volunteers, as well as seven mentors/advisors, originating from four continents; and
  • our most anticipated accomplishment... received registered charity status in Canada! That means, if you pay income taxes in Canada, you are eligible to claim your donation on your personal income tax filing. For details, visit our Donations web page.
Beyond all these accomplishments, perhaps our greatest satisfaction comes from knowing we have given our Oaks something far greater than financial aid: hope! Read the Letter from the Field below.

I’d like to personally thank all of you who have joined us for the ride so far.  If you’re new to TSO, and the spirit moves you, take your first step with us by simply contacting me at swills@thestrongestoak.org. We would welcome your volunteer time, donations or simply words of encouragement for our Oaks (on our Facebook page).  

Remember, it takes a global village to raise an Oak!

Best Regards,

Stace Wills
Managing Director and Co-Founder

Letter from the Field – Steven Shyaka

The following is a letter sent to Stace by Steven Shyaka (Rwandan Strongest Oak since 2010), in anticipation of Stace’s visit to Rwanda in November 2011. English translations of Kinyarwanda words are given in [square brackets]. Some deletions were made for the sake of brevity and some edits made for the sake of clarity – the sentiments remain unchanged.

Amakuru [how are you] Stace?

You can’t imagine how enthusiastic I am to meet a man who brought a light to my life and career. ... You did a big job and I specifically recognize this when we are passing our exams, while other students are being chased out due to tuition problems and so forth. ...

You can’t ... imagine how deeply the TSO team has helped me.

I am someone who once used to see the fierce lions wide-mouthed ahead of me, but now see them just as barking toothless dogs. I had no idea what a bright future means and where it would come from. Due to how we were born during horrible ethnic division and human degradation, we only knew that our parents were our God. Soon after losing them, we couldn't imagine how anyone could survive without a parent, especially a Tutsi, but today it is a different story – parents  are everywhere, even those we never met are replacing our parents and even doing better than what they could have done for us.

I am glad and happy for who I am and who I am slowly becoming as TSO is mentoring me. ... I no longer see the darkness only, in a world of both light and darkness, but today dear Stace I am gradually becoming aware of the fact that I and my sister Jeanne have survived. Many Rwandan survivors who faced the reality and bore self acceptance, like Jacqueline Murekatete and  Immaculee Ilibagiza, have always insisted on one thing that I and my sister are discovering now. That is, "There is a reason why you and I have survived".

It is quite motivating when you see people in need of you, when for a long time you considered yourself as less than nothing. Whenever I am among my classmates explaining to them or discussing together, sometimes I think probably I am dreaming. Stace, you and TSO are doing a good thing for me and I am sure God had a reason as for why both my Mom and Dad left me in the swamp high and dry alone. I couldn't have thought at that time that life had a meaning or that I could be worth anything, or that I would be here today being able to tap my fingertips on the computer keyboard.

Murakoze [thank you] Stace
Amahoro y'Imana [Peace of God]



Our inspiration, Charles Mugabe, embracing Astheria, grandmother to Oaks Steven and Jeanne.

Stace Wills

Stace Wills

Managing Director & Co-Founder


Steven Shyaka

Read letter from Steven's Shyaka:
"Letter from the Field"

The Strongest Oak Foundation is
a registered Canadian charity

Charitable Registration #
83913 8708 RR0001

Visit the Worldviews Project to see out how Calgarian, Kate McKenzie, is fighting hopelessness through inspiration and action! We are so pleased that Kate has found time in her schedule to visit our Strongest Oaks in Uganda and Rwanda.

Introducing our Strongest Oaks

Charles Mugabe

Our first Strongest Oak, Charles, survived the massacre in Nyamata Church (Rwanda) in 1994, where he witnessed unspeakable atrocities and his entire family perished. Passionate about sharing his message of "never again", Charles served as host at the Genocide Memorial Center in Nyamata (where he and Stace Wills first met) and, in September 2010, represented Rwanda at a global conference on conflict resolution held in Geneva, Switzerland. In February 2010, Charles co-founded (with Strongest Oak Steven Shyaka) Healing Through Arts and Drama (HTAD), an organization that helps genocide survivors, their families, and even genocide criminals themselves heal emotional scars, recount stories, and overcome barriers needed to move forward in their lives. Currently studying Social Work at Kampala University, Charles hopes to apply his extraordinary life experiences towards a career in conflict resolution.

Read more about Charles.

Steven Shyaka

Along with Charles Mugabe, Steven co-founded Healing Through Arts and Drama (HTAD), a social support group in Nyamata that promotes healing, unity and reconciliation amongst Rwandans affected by the genocide. His mission of reconciliation is remarkable considering that, at the age of eight, Steven witnessed his parents' deaths and lost his brothers and other family members to genocide. With the help of international aid workers, Steven was reunited with his sister Jeanne and grandmother Astheria some years after the genocide. In September 2010, Steven was introduced to TSO through Charles. Steven’s incredible story of resilience deeply inspired TSO, and Steven was accepted as a TSO’s second “Oak” shortly thereafter. Steven is currently living in Kigali with his sister Jeanne, studying law at Kigali Independent University and working as an intern in a Kigali law office.

Read more about Steven.

Jean de Dieu (JD) Tuyisenge

The 1994 genocide left many young Rwandans orphaned and with no money with which to attend school. Knowing the life-changing power of education, Jean de Dieu (JD) formed EduAfrica, a non-profit that pays school fees for vulnerable youth. Unlike many of his family members, JD escaped the Rwandan genocide with his life. However, having been brutally attacked, JD was not left unscathed: he suffered a disfiguring jaw injury and leg injury (which eventually resulted in amputation). TSO co-founder, Stace Wills, met JD by chance at a development conference in Calgary in May 2010. Some months later, JD would be accepted as our third Oak. JD is a very busy man: not only does he manage EduAfrica but he is also a full-time student at Simon Fraser University (in Vancouver, Canada) and works part-time as a youth facilitator for workshops for new immigrants to Canada.

Read more about JD

Jeanne Mutoni

Jeanne, sister of Strongest Oak Steven Shyaka, is a young woman with a strong will to not just survive, but to thrive. She was a toddler during the Rwandan genocide and suffered debilitating post traumatic stress that required hospitalization throughout her life. In spite of it all, Jeanne has been steadfast in realizing her goal of attending university. She has moved to Kigali to live with her brother Steven and study accounting at Kigali Independent University. With the language of instruction being English, Jeanne is dramatically improving her English skills. In addition, through a TSO sponsored internship, Jeanne is honing her accounting skills by working part-time at a health centre near her former village of Nyamata. One day Jeanne hopes to start her own charity to help the vulnerable children in the Nyamata area.

Read more about Jeanne.

Espoir Magendo

Espoir is a determined young man! Despite his family's dire poverty that earlier forced him to leave school (there is no free public education in D. R. Congo), with TSO's help, Espoir overcame staggering challenges to complete his high school: he quite literally walked two hours each way to and from school and then studied at home under the light of a kerosene lamp. Espoir has now moved to Kampala, Uganda to study English in preparation for university. Impressively, when he was recently interviewed by the WorldViews Project, he was able to conduct his interview in English; this is an amazing accomplishment considering that, just a few months prior, Espoir's English proficiency was at an absolute beginners level. Espoir plans to pursue a degree and career in Information and Communications Technology, and he is enjoying a new notebook computer donated by his TSO mentor to help him realize his goals.

Read more about Espoir

Zingire and Neema Namegabe

When we met sisters Zingire and Neema, they were living in extreme poverty with their children and other family members in an impoverished slum in Bukavu, D.R. Congo. Bukavu's residents have endured a horrific history of war and tragedy for years. In 2006, 16,000 females were reportedly raped by Congolese rebel soldiers including Zingire and Neema who, as a result, each gave birth to children. In November of 2011, the sisters completed their leather (Zingire) and wood (Neema) crafts programs at a local vocational school in Bukavu and, recently, Zingire proudly began an internship in advertising and sales at a bottled water manufacturer and distributor. (Neema is awaiting sponsorship for an internship.) Both sisters hope to gain the necessary business and work experience to eventually launch their own small business Zingire in leatherworks and Neema in woodworks.

Read more about Zingire and Neema.

Scola Sikitu

Our newest Strongest Oak, Scola, is from Bagira, D. R. Congo. Her father died when she was two and, when she was ten, her mother remarried and abandoned Scola and her sister in favour of her new husband (who rejected the girls). The girls relied on neighbours and community organizations for support. Scola is currently living in a storeroom of a church in Bagira, sharing space with a wheelbarrow and tools. Despite her living conditions and interruptions in her education (due to a lack of money for school fees), Scola is undeterred. When she completes high school, Scola plans to study accounting at university.

Read more about Scola.

Congolese Strongest Oaks
Give Back

During Christmas 2011, TSO Strongest Oaks and volunteers made the holiday season a bit brighter for impoverished youth in Bukavu, Eastern Congo. Read more about it.

Copyright © 2011-2012 The Strongest Oak Foundation
All rights reserved.

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