Two years ago, Camden native and dancer LaMar Baylor of Disney’s Lion King spent a month in Kigali, Rwanda teaching street children displaced by the Rwandan genocide how to dance. LaMar became so engaged with the children that he returned in November 2013, this time as Cultural Ambassador for Rebecca Davis Dance Company (RDDC), the humanitarian organization that sponsored his first trip.
“Dance gives children building blocks for life. Everything you learn in dance — posture, how to figure things out, translating your mind through your body, focus and discipline — can carry you through life,” LaMar said.
An important part of LaMar’s Thanksgiving-week trip was to follow up with the youths, Ssali Joseph Eugene and Innocent Nkusi, whom he had trained as dance teachers during his first trip.The results were even better than anticipated. Not only were Ssali and Innocent — and the new students he trained, Bashir and Mouhdi — able to take their dance technique to the next level, but LaMar was also impressed with their skill as teachers.
“It was rewarding to see them create their own agenda and objectives, and to watch them get through to the children,” said LaMar.
When he first met the children, in 2011, things were strikingly different. “Initially kids came to class with no regard for order. They came for recreation. Now, they come to learn,” he said.
Harnessing the discipline that the students develop in dance, RDDC also gives basic IT classes. Showing children who have never seen a computer before how to send an email or research a subject on the Internet opens up whole new worlds, and may even enable some of the top students to get jobs. But dance and IT classes are just a start.
RDDC: Helping Transform Children’s Lives
For five years, Rebecca Davis, a dancer who studied choreography in Russia, had a dance company that performed in Philadelphia and throughout the world. In 2010, after a trip to Rwanda on which she was moved by the raw energy of Rwandan children and the difficulties of their plight, she changed the main focus of that company from dance to international relief work.
The trip was prompted by her ballet Darfur, about the genocide in Sudan. LaMar, who was one of the principal dancers, went on to dance with the renowned Philadanco. Now he’s dancing on Broadway, but as RDDC’s cultural ambassador he is a principal in the campaign to help children transform their lives from poverty to possibilities.
Rebecca and LaMar both believe that the talent of these children can only be fully realized with an education. “Talent needs brains,” said Rebecca, “and sending these street children to boarding school to reach their full development is one of the primary goals of our work.”
Indiegogo Campaign to Fund Scholarship
With that goal in mind, LaMar has initiated the LaMar Baylor Scholarship Fund to raise money for one student to attend Sonrise Boarding School, one of the best schools in Rwanda, at a cost of only $1,500 for the year. He’s begun his campaign with fundraising on Indiegogo.
LaMar has already chosen the recipient for the new scholarship — Jean Paul Mugisha, who has been part of the RDDC program for about 18 months. Mugisha doesn’t know his real age, but is estimated to be about 11.
“When he dances you can see his heart inside out. He picks up every piece of information you give him,” said LaMar. Observing Mugisha in IT class confirmed LaMar’s choice. “As a peer-to-peer teacher, he used the pointer, made eye contact, commended his fellow students, and corrected them when they were wrong.”
After choosing Mugisha, LaMar traveled with Rebecca to tell Mugisha’s mother about the scholarship. The first challenge was finding the family. Because of their poverty, they have constantly been forced to move. Mugisha had trouble remembering their last location.
Finally, LaMar and Rebecca got a call through to Mugisha’s mother, who came to meet them and bring them to the house. LaMar described the house in which Mugisha’s mother, brothers, and sisters all live as no bigger than a large bathroom. And in the center of the room a light bulb dangled on a string. Though the room was humble, the pride Mugisha’s family took in the scholarship was immense.
As to the future, LaMar hopes to carve out more time to devote to the children in Rwanda, find ways for more children to go to school, and spread awareness about RDDC’s mission of providing better access to education. But he also has developed some personal goals: To be a positive role model for the children, he wants to better himself by getting a master’s in dance education.
Meanwhile, during this holiday season he’s hoping others will be moved to donate to the scholarship fund he’s started. “The holidays are a time of togetherness and unity, something these kids don’t know about. At the time of the genocide, they were removed from their homes and families,” said LaMar, urging us to count and share our blessings.
Lisa Z. Meritz is Board President of RDDC