The sun was almost set when Clarisse climbed up the mango tree. Warm tears traced her cheeks as she processed what she was about to do. She had no choice, she believed and only wanted a way to stop the pain.
Since her parents and eldest brother went to prison a few years ago, Clarisse’s life had managed to go from bad to worse. First, her grandmother, the family’s only living relative, passed away. Then, her older brother and sister left the family entirely, leaving Clarisse, a 12-year-old, responsible for her two younger brothers.
Clarisse tried to care for her siblings but had grown defeated by the effort. The starvation was unbearable. The community stigma was crippling. She was tired. Done with it all. She climbed higher.
When she reached a fork in the tree trunk, she stopped. She sat down, and through jagged sobs, she surveyed the branches. There was one within reach that appeared to be sturdy enough, high enough. She grabbed it.
Her hands and fingers stung—the flesh rubbed raw from weeding crops and carrying firewood—as she secured the rope. Soon it would all be over, she thought. She sat back down to tie a knot. She was nearly complete when she heard a voice from the ground yell, “Hey!”
Clarisse peered down. There, standing at the base, was the familiar face of a neighbor. Clarisse could feel him assessing the rope, her distress. “Hey!” he shouted again. “Come down from there.”
Clarisse shook her head no. “Please come down,” he begged. And through a series of pleas and promises, Clarisse eventually surrendered. She was still a 12-year-old child, after all. Obedient to the commands of her elders.
No more than a month later, Clarisse and her brothers joined Zoe Empowers Rwanda. They arrived at the first meeting in dirty tops and pants nearly worn through and ill-fitting shoes. The only clothing they owned.
As Clarisse tried to explain their situation, she broke down. The conflict and abuse of her childhood, the history of abandonment, the community stigma had all scarred her deeply. The family immediately began grief counseling with Zoe Empowers staff.
As the weeks progressed, the empowerment group became a source of refuge for Clarisse. Meeting other orphans who faced similar challenges was comforting. Little by little, Clarisse came to realize she could rely on her group members like family. Their care and support began to soften the rigid grooves of her heart. She began to open up and trust and smile again.
Once Clarisse completed entrepreneurship training, she used her grant money to start a small business selling beans. This eventually generated enough profit for her to diversify her inventory. Rice was her first addition, then avocados, then maize flour, followed by peanut flour, eggplant, onions, and tomatoes.
The growth of her food-selling business was a significant point of pride for Clarisse. Before Zoe Empowers, her family would often go a week without eating. Even when Clarisse had been able to get a job, farmers would usually not pay her or offer a single sweet potato as a consultation. Knowing this wasn’t enough food for three, Clarisse would give the potato to her brothers and forgo eating.
In the past, community members often questioned how the family was able to survive at all. They knew the reputation of her parents and eldest brother. They had accused Clarisse and her brothers of stealing food to survive. They threatened to kill them if they were caught.
But once Clarisse started her business, she was able to rightfully purchase food from the same community members who had once made such hurtful remarks. And so, the community’s perception of her and her family began to shift, as did Clarisse’s confidence in herself.
During the first year of the empowerment program, Clarisse and her brothers moved into a new house, built with help from the empowerment group and the local church. They had previously been homeless, having lived in their grandmother’s house until it collapsed. Its demise had pushed Clarisse’s older brother and sister to leave many months earlier.
Once the new home was constructed, Clarisse’s neighbor helped her track down her older siblings. She told them of her new home, her business, the way her life had changed since they had left. Both of them agreed to come home.
By the time Clarisse graduated from Zoe Empowers in 2018, she was running a business large enough to employ and support all five siblings. Today, the family continues to live and work together, which Clarisse considers her greatest blessing. Both of her younger brothers are in school, and everyone is insured and able to access medical care when they are sick.
Watch as Clarisse shares her story.
Clarisse’s faith in God has also been restored. She admits she was angry with Him before Zoe Empowers, but she feels differently now. She will never forget that day in the mango tree. The pain and hopelessness she felt then still evokes heaviness on her chest.
But the memory is also a source of light. Clarisse believes that had her neighbor not intervened, she would have never joined Zoe Empowers mere weeks later, and she would have never come to know the richness of her life today. She thanks God and Zoe Empowers for unveiling the path when it was too dark for her to see.
Empower generations of children like Clarisse and her siblings for as little as $8 per month.