Jonathan LaMare, 32, a graduate student in social work at Tulane University in New Orleans, has never worked with children.
But he will be working with nearly 100 of them in Rwanda's capital city, Kigali, for a semester to complete his master's degree with a concentration in global social work. LaMare was originally assigned to work in India, but it was decided he would be better suited for Rwanda since he is fluent in French.
The Plattsburgh State graduate left for Rwanda last week.
LaMare, who is from Plattsburgh, anticipates he will enjoy the travel aspect of the program.
"I've never been to Africa. I'm excited to make some sort of impact. The actual experience is going to be life-changing," he said.
He is required to complete 330 hours of service in 90 days for his degree, so he will work at the orphanage at least five days a week.
MANY FACED TRAUMA
LaMare will start from scratch to create a program that will address the children's mental-health issues.
"Right now, they have no psychosocial program at all."
A program like this is necessary, he said, since many of the orphans have endured some kind of traumatic experience, and many of them suffer from HIV or AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder or have lost parents.
A program to reintegrate children back into family life is also nonexistent, so LaMare plans to address that issue as well.
Many of the children's ages are unknown since most are found wandering the streets, he added. Most of them are estimated to be between 4 and 18 years old. He said it is possible some may be victims of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 800,000 people.
LaMare anticipates the hardest thing to overcome will be the social and cultural barrier and what he calls the "cultural gap," although it will help that he speaks the local language.
Treating mental-health concerns abroad is not as simple as it may seem, LaMare said.
"What we perceive in the West to be a mental-health issue may or may not be a problem (in another country)," he said.
When one enters another culture, it is "important to be mindful of the fact that I'm visiting them," LaMare said. He realizes he is a foreign resource and is there to assist, not to take over.
DRAW from experience
The program he will follow was designed by Tulane University staff who reside in Rwanda in partnership with the local staff. He has received a small grant from the Centers for Disease Control to help him accomplish his goals for the semester abroad.
LaMare gained relevant experience and skills for this project while working on an AIDS task force in New Orleans over the past nine months, where he tested and provided mental-health counseling for adults with the disease. Even though he didn't work with children there, he said he will undoubtedly draw from the experience while in Rwanda.
"It's important to remember that everyone experiences trauma differently," LaMare said, adding that there is no one way to effectively treat those suffering from the repercussions of past traumatic episodes.
He plans to keep an open mind, remain flexible and draw from the assortment of information he has learned in his graduate courses.
Another aspect of the experience will be training existing staff members of the Rwandan Orphans Project. The organization has 11 full-time staff members, including two directors, a supervisor, six "catch-up school teachers" and two caretakers.
The organization recently hired a Rwandan woman who holds the equivalent of a bachelor's degree in sociology, but it is unlikely that she has received any training in social work, LaMare said. So he will teach her what he knows.
LaMare expects to graduate from Tulane University in December.
He hopes to work overseas after that since "the point of the certificate for global social work is to work internationally," he said.
In the future, he may collaborate with Dr. Lauren Eastwood, a professor in the sociology and criminal justice program at Plattsburgh State, if they are able to secure a grant.