‘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
‘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