GG award-winner in Maple Ridge to raise money for Rwandan children

A former Maple Ridge realtor, Cathy Emmerson currently runs a free school in the dusty little town of Ruhengeri, in northern Rwanda

Cathy Emmerson at her school in Rwanda.

Cathy Emmerson at her school in Rwanda.

Cathy Emmerson knows she can always count on her hometown to lend a helping hand.

A former Maple Ridge realtor, Emmerson currently runs a free school in the dusty little town of Ruhengeri, in northern Rwanda.

Called PREFER (Poverty Reduction Education Family Empowerment in Rwanda), Emmerson’s school helps educate and care for children aged two to six who would otherwise be out on the streets.

PREFER also operates a skills program to assist women in entering the workforce, a goat-fostering program and several programs for orphaned children.

For her efforts, Emmerson was awarded with the Governor General’s Award in 2010, and this year, PREFER has achieved charity status in Canada, and is now able to issue tax receipts for donations.

Emmerson said the school will also be able to apply for a wider range of grants, which she hopes will help her expand the school.

“On the first day of school we had 400 parents show up to register, but we could only take 160,” she said. “We even had parents sneaking their kids into the classroom when we had our recess break. We’d get back to the classroom, and there’d be 25 more kids in the class.”

Currently, the school consists of four classrooms, a storeroom, and an office. Construction is under way to build a house on the property for Emmerson and her husband that will also house the many volunteers who come to stay and help with the school. Next for the school will be a four-classroom addition.

Emmerson said much of the project’s success can be credited to the people of  Maple Ridge.

“The generosity of people here never fails to astound me,” she said. “The contributions and just the enthusiasm for what we do is amazing.”

Emmerson is back in Maple Ridge visiting for the summer, and her childhood friends Barb Chipperfield and Brenda Wilkes have decided to hold a dance this Saturday at Pitt Meadows Heritage Hall to help  raise money for the school. The pair put on a similar event last summer and managed to raise more than $5,000 to help the Rwandan children.

Thanks to the Rwandan government’s efforts to root out corruption, all of that money will be able to go directly to where it’s needed.

“In places like the [Democratic Republic of Congo], for every $500 you bring in, you have to spend $300 of on bribes because it is so corrupt there,” said Emmerson. “In Rwanda, we don’t have that problem.”

Much has changed in the country since ethnic genocide claimed the lives of close to 800,000 people in 1994.

Under the leadership of president Paul Kagame, Emmerson said the country has quickly progressed, with new schools, new roads, and all manner of infrastructure.

“It’s a different world,” she said. “When I came to Rwanda in 2003, there only 8,000 children attending primary school. Now that number is 2.4 million; 65 per cent of the population is under 18, so education is very important.”

• The second annual Fundraiser Dance for Cathy and Her Kids in Rwanda takes place at the Pitt Meadows Heritage Hall, Saturday, June 16 at 7 p.m. The event features live music courtesy of the Free Time Band, a cash bar, barbecue, prize draws, and door prizes. Tickets are a minimum $20 donation. Call 604-466-2010.