‘Faith got me to the fin­ish line’

Hav­ing spon­sored a child through ed­u­ca­tion, Gena Smith then headed to Rwanda for a fundrais­ing trek – and to meet the child she helped

YOURS (UK) - - Inside - By Katharine Woot­ton

‘In Africa, if a fam­ily can­not pay for a school uni­form, then the child can­not go to school’

Tak­ing the fi­nal few steps of the Rwanda muskathlon on may 18 this year, Gena Smith felt com­pletely ex­hausted. Her feet hurt, her face was hot from the sun and she was over­whelmed by the fact she had just trekked a stag­ger­ing 60km (37 miles) in one day. But all that sud­denly van­ished when, at the side of the fin­ish line, Gena spot­ted a fa­mil­iar face. Stand­ing with a beam­ing smile and open arms was marie-Grace, the 20-year-old lady Gena had been spon­sor­ing through ed­u­ca­tion and out of a life of poverty for 11 years. “When I saw marieGrace at the fin­ish line I just col­lapsed in her arms and we hugged each other. I just felt amaze­ment and joy be­yond mea­sure,” says re­tired teacher, Gena, 70. Gena first be­gan spon­sor­ing marie-Grace when she learned about the Chris­tian char­ity, Com­pas­sion UK, through friends and fam­ily who were spon­sor­ing a child’s ed­u­ca­tion too. “When I heard more, I just thought it was a won­der­ful thing to be able to help chil­dren out of poverty so de­cided I wanted to do it.” Gena was part­nered with marie-Grace who, at the time, was just nine years old and, as one of five chil­dren liv­ing in a poor fam­ily, would not be able to af­ford to go to school with­out Gena’s help. “In Africa, if a fam­ily can­not pay for a school uni­form, the child can­not go to school. marie-Grace was from one of the poor­est of fam­i­lies who couldn’t af­ford a uni­form, but with my money, Com­pas­sion paid for that out­fit and her school­ing so she could be ed­u­cated. Her ed­u­ca­tion would also have a rip­ple ef­fect on the whole fam­ily.” As soon as Gena be­gan her spon­sor­ship, marieGrace sent lovely let­ters and pho­to­graphs as well as ask­ing Gena all about her life in eng­land. over the years the pair struck up a real friend­ship – even though their let­ters were writ­ten in dif­fer­ent lan­guages and trans­lated by an in­ter­preter. Gena felt such a con­nec­tion to this won­der­ful child she could see was flour­ish­ing in school and was des­per­ate to meet her in per­son one day. “I tried two or three times over a ten-year pe­riod to find a way to visit marie-Grace, but ev­ery time it ended up not be­ing pos­si­ble,” says Gena.

Then out of the blue one day, Gena re­ceived an email from Com­pas­sion about a fundrais­ing chal­lenge that was go­ing on in Africa. “I got this email about a muskathlon, which is a fit­ness chal­lenge you can com­plete by walk­ing, cy­cling or run­ning, and was amazed to see this was hap­pen­ing in Rwanda, which is where Marie-Grace is. I knew this would give me the op­por­tu­nity to meet her so I grasped it with both hands.” While Gena had al­ways en­joyed long-dis­tance walks and co-leads her church walk­ing group, she sud­denly re­alised the muskathlon would be a gru­elling chal­lenge that she would need to train in earnest for. She also started a huge fundrais­ing drive to raise £3,555, which would sup­port Marie-Grace as she leaves school and moves into fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion. At last, on May 11 this year, Gena set off to Rwanda and to­wards the end of the trip, she met Marie-Grace for the first time. “Marie-Grace came to stay in the guest­house I was in and I first saw her as I came down for sup­per. It was lovely and we im­me­di­ately hugged one an­other. It was very emo­tional and I felt that she re­ally wanted to say thank you.” This meet­ing was a great boost when, a day later, Gena fi­nally set off at 2am on her muskathlon trek with four oth­ers. “We made great progress on our first cir­cuit as it was to­tally dark and cool. Then dawn came and peo­ple came out of their huts, look­ing at us in­cred­u­lously, like what are you do­ing? To­wards the af­ter­noon when the schools ended, chil­dren started run­ning along with us. They were laugh­ing and say­ing ‘good morn­ing’ which was the only English they knew, al­though we tried to ex­plain it was now af­ter­noon. But all the way round there was so much sup­port for us.” And when she reached the fin­ish line, there – so un­ex­pect­edly – was MarieGrace to con­grat­u­late her on reach­ing the end. All the chal­lengers then joined to­gether for a party cel­e­brat­ing their achieve­ments. “I was so de­lighted to have been able to do it and hugely thank­ful to the Lord for en­abling me as a lot of prayer from fam­ily and friends had gone into it.” As for the fu­ture, the money Gena raised will now al­low Marie-Grace to pur­sue the next step of ed­u­ca­tion ei­ther at univer­sity or in a vo­ca­tional course, while Gena will con­tinue pay­ing her £20 a month spon­sor­ship to Com­pas­sion un­til Marie-Grace is 22 – the stan­dard end-point for Com­pas­sion spon­sor­ship. “As for any more chal­lenges, well, I’ll def­i­nitely con­tinue my pas­sion for walk­ing but I think one muskathlon might have been enough for me,” she laughs. For more about Com­pas­sion UK call 01932 836490, or visit www.com­pas­sionuk.org

For­ever friends! Gena and MarieGrace meet at last

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