When Sally Stuart first traveled to Rwanda in 2004, the tiny African nation was ten years removed from inconceivable horror.
She entered a country that just a decade before saw nearly one million of its people slaughtered, a mass genocide sparked by ferocious civil tensions between two rival factions of the nation.
After her first visit, she started talking with her huband, a pastor at Windham Presbyterian Church, about ways to get the entire church community involved with Rwanda.
"Rwanda is just a country that I personally have felt a call to," she said.
Eight years after her first trip across the Atlantic, Stuart will join fellow Windham residents and church members on a fourth mission trip, set to embark on Jan. 4.
But the eight people traveling after the new year aren't going empty-handed.
When they meet the kids in Rwanda, they will come with soccer balls – dozens of them. They will also bring the children confidence in the form of athletic jerseys, with over 200 collected from generous residents so far.
The first set of those jerseys will go to a catch-up school of 200 street children who come for a condensed primary education.
"For the street kids, they're competing with other kids in town that might have the jerseys," Stuart said. "This gives them a sense of self-esteem that they don't have to show up in rags."
A Christian ministry on the Congolese border will get the other set of jerseys next year. Stuart said that they run weekend soccer tournaments and will give the jerseys to each of the schools in the area.
The new balls are to replace the typical hand-made soccer balls that the Rwandan children made.
"They'll use trash bags and they wrape the Mana leaves and twine around it," she said of the makeshift balls.
Stuart said that the balls and jerseys are just an added part of the package. The focus is on teaching the people health and hygiene.
When the kids are together, they can be taught about HIV prevention and the value of staying in school. Stuart said that diiscussions on the trauma and loss that the kids have had in their lives from genocide also take place, along with sending a "love of God" message.
In previous visits, Stuart and other Windham missionaries have brought school supplies, over-the-counter medicines, classroom aids like maps and periodic tables and clothing or used shoes. Used laptop computers have also been brought over.
"One of our key goals – there are Rwandans who are doing incredible work for their people," Stuart said. "So when we do this, a big part of it is to encourage them that what they're doing matters and we can support it financially from afar."
Stuart marveled at the response from donors, saying that she expected 15 mismatched jerseys but has instead received much more. One person came and gave her five goalies shirts. Whole teams worth of jerseys were donated by the Windham Soccer Association.
Just Tuesday evening, Stuart thought that she had a shortage of adult-sized soccer balls, but an anonymous donation of two large bags was delivered to Nesmith Library.
"God is good," she said of the unexpected gift.
The church is still accepting donations until Friday, and Stuart said that donations of new stick or retractable pens could still be used.
"Many kids there are so poor they can't afford notebooks and pens, and only end up learning what they retain orally," Stuart said "We give out loads of notebooks, which we buy there because of the weight, and pens which we buy here and bring with us."
During her travels, Stuart will also make a solo journey to the northern nation of Uganda for a week.