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Against All Odds: Pascaline and her family of ten.

Zoe Empowers helped Pascaline find stability for her family of ten.

Extreme poverty befell Pascaline and her family four years ago. 

It happened in a matter of days following the death of Pascaline’s mother. The family returned to their matriarch’s home village in rural Rwanda for the burial. There, Pascaline’s father swiftly abandoned his six children, leaving them with their eighty-year-old maternal grandmother, who was already struggling to provide for three of Pascaline’s cousins. 

Pascaline’s grandmother had suffered an arm injury several years earlier. Without access to proper healthcare, she’d lost the function of her right arm. Able-bodied Pascaline, then fourteen, was the eldest of the nine children, ages three months to ten years old. And so, almost overnight, Pascaline became responsible for a household of ten. 

Pascaline spent days collecting leftover charcoal to sell and weeding the fields. But the meager earnings—scraps of sweet potatoes, cassava, and corn—from odd jobs weren’t enough to feed the family. Hunger haunted their household. Nights were endless, filled with crying infants desperate for milk Pascaline couldn’t afford. On occasion, mothers in the village would have pity on Pascaline’s begging, sharing milk and porridge. But when that option failed, Pascaline fed the babies solid food.

“We never had vegetables or legumes,” Pascaline recalled. “I was praying for God to send help. I felt abandoned and began to believe I was alone.”  

Unable to afford education, Pascaline and her siblings languished in perpetual need. If a family member fell ill, Pascaline could do nothing. No one had birth certificates, disqualifying them from need-based programs. 

Four years passed in this state of hopelessness and despair, each more bleak than the next. Finally, in January 2023, Pascaline heard about Zoe Empowers and attended the information event. She wept to Albertine, a program facilitator in Rwanda, as she recalled her strenuous battle to keep her family alive. 

Pascaline was accepted into the empowerment program, and at the first group meeting, she created a Dream Chart to outline her vision and goals for the program. Placed prominently at the top, Pascaline drew a picture of her motivation: children crying out of hunger. 

More than anything, Pascaline dreamed of becoming food secure. So, when she didn’t attend the second meeting, her group was confused and concerned. They tracked Pascaline down and learned she hadn’t found work that day and could not feed her family. She’d skipped the Zoe meeting to beg for food. 

Pascaline’s peers, who were also vulnerable and hungry, deemed Pascaline’s situation an emergency. They banded together, promising to help Pascaline find food for a few days to allow her to keep coming to the meetings. Their kindness and generosity moved Pascaline to tears. Never before had anyone come to her home and listened to her struggles. 

Pascaline with her empowerment group.

Pascaline started a small business selling fruits and vegetables with her first Zoe grant. But this glimmer of stability was disrupted when a government mandate required all children under eighteen to be in school. 

Once again, Pascaline thought she’d have to drop out of the Zoe program until Albertine, the program facilitator, proposed a solution with government officials and the school: Pascaline received a contract to supply sweet potatoes and cabbage to the school through her business, allowing her to get an education and remain in the Zoe program.

The partnership seemed promising, but Pascaline needed a loan to buy sweet potatoes from another supplier to meet the school’s upfront demand. Luckily, after many conversations, Pascaline connected with a farmer who trusted the Zoe program and rented her a plot of sweet potatoes to harvest. Her group mates helped transport the crop, agreeing that Pascaline would pay them once she received payment from the school.

After a few months, Pascaline’s business grew and stabilized. The steady income allowed Pascaline to participate in her group’s merry-go-round fund, a banking method used across program countries requiring group members to input small sums weekly to receive loans as needed to grow and diversify their endeavors. With access to the merry-go-round, Pascaline acquired more livestock, including chickens, a goat, and a pig. She expanded her farming practice, renting land and sharing crops. 

Wanting her family to build self-sufficiency alongside her, Pascaline gifted each sibling one chicken. Her family members used the money from egg sales to pay for school supplies. Zoe had subsidized the cost of medical insurance so Pascaline could focus on her business. But by the six-month mark, Pascaline could afford 50% of the cost of medical insurance. By the end of year one, Pascaline covered the expense on her own and Zoe helped her to obtain IDs and birth certificates. 

With an expanding business, Pascaline recently hired two employees, and during planting season, she hired five more—all impoverished people in the community. Pascaline pays her employees fairly, in cash, unlike how former employers exploited her for labor. She even made arrangements for an employee to care for one of her pigs, and when the pig reproduced, they agreed to share the piglets, thereby spreading the wealth.

Pascaline with two of her employees.

At school, Pascaline was chosen as the leader of her grade, representing her class in conversations with school officials. When asked about this responsibility, Pascaline beams with pride. 

“Before Zoe, I thought I’d never smile again,” Pascaline said. “I believed God had punished me for something. But, today, I can smile because I’m happy.” 

Pascaline with her classmates.

Pascaline’s journey exemplifies the power of collective support and individual resilience. With two years remaining in the Zoe program and her primary goal of food security achieved, she is focused on bigger milestones: land ownership, a new home, and possibly reuniting with her father. Like many vulnerable youth, Pascaline never lacked drive and determination, only support and opportunities. With both, she’s proven herself to be unstoppable.

Pascaline with seven of her younger siblings.