A smiling Megan Swanson Chao hugs Rwandan children.

It began with a loaf of bread.

As Megan Swanson Chao ’09 stirred up Rwanda’s red dirt on her walk home from a summer internship with Breakthrough Partners, a group of boys ran up to her and a friend, asking for money.

“They were really persistent,” recalls Megan of the encounter nearly 10 years ago. “It forced us to take a second look.” The women offered some bread to the children, who devoured it. The gesture led the women to look for the children every day that summer when they walked to their internships in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a small, densely populated central African country. Sometimes, Megan would bring food. Other times, they took the boys’ laundry home to wash.

Near the end of the summer, the students were devastated to learn their friends — some as young as 5 — had been rounded up by the police. According to Human Rights Watch, Rwandan authorities routinely detain the poor, including street children, for prolonged periods in “transit centers.” The women asked local organizations for help, but all were full or didn’t work with street children.

To free the children, the women rented a house. A Rwandan friend agreed to care for the boys. That was the start of Hope for Life, which provides shelter, training, and other benefits to impoverished youth in Rwanda.

“We never meant to start a nonprofit. We didn’t have a vision or a strategic plan. We were just trying to get our friends out of jail,” says Megan of the effort she began while still a psychology major at SPU. “We started out by sending the money ourselves for the rent each month while speaking at different churches around Seattle, sharing the story and asking people to help.”

Almost a decade later, Hope for Life has helped 83 Rwandan children escape homelessness. Nearly 200 children have enrolled in school. Nearly 600 lives have benefited from Hope for Life’s rehabilitative home, child sponsorships, job creation, and outreach program, all led by a 14-member Rwandan team — part of the organization’s belief that locals are best equipped to bring about change in their own communities.

For her role as the ministry’s U.S. executive director and co-founder, Megan has been recognized as Seattle Pacific’s GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) 2018 Alumna of the Year.

Megan oversees the U.S. staff, volunteers, and interns; provides organizational oversight alongside the Rwandan executive director; manages donor relations, marketing, and communication; and leads an annual learning trip to Rwanda for U.S. supporters. But she’s quick to point to the collective effort of donors and Hope for Life staff in both countries.

“For Megan, it’s not about alleviating poverty in Rwanda, it’s about helping the most vulnerable see the life they were created for,” says Corey Hage ’03, one of Hope for Life’s board members.

Hope for Life has seen traumatized children start to believe that they are valuable. “That changes everything,” Megan says. “The challenges are immense but seeing the hope come back into their eyes is so worth it.”

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