“Hope for Life,” with Megan Chao
Megan Swanson Chao '09 is the U.S. executive director and co-founder of Hope for Life in Rwanda. Her organization helps Rwandan children escape homelessness and transition into healthy families through outreach, rehabilitation, and reintegration. For her work, Megan was recognized as Seattle Pacific’s 2018 GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) Alumna of the Year.
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and this is my producer Kyle. Say hi, Kyle.
Kyle Brown: Hi Kyle.
Amanda: This week, we sat down with Megan Chao. She graduated from SPU with a major in psychology and a minor in global and urban ministry in 2009. During a study abroad trip to Rwanda, Megan formed friendships with local youth experiencing homelessness, who were soon detained for sleeping on the streets. She teamed up with two local leaders to advocate for her friends’ release and ended up unintentionally starting a nonprofit. Since then, the Hope for Life program has grown to empower 136 youth to escape homelessness long term, and prevent hundreds more from ending up on the streets. As the U.S. executive director and co-founder of Hope for Life, Megan directs the U.S. side of the organization, which primarily focuses on communications, fundraising, and strategic planning.
Megan, thank you so much for joining us.
Megan Chao: Thanks for having me, Amanda.
Amanda: Now this story, the backstory a little bit, I’ve known Megan for quite a few years now. This story of you as a young student studying abroad, birthing this nonprofit, is so amazing to me. It’s absolutely movie-worthy. So could you take us back to those early days and that jail break that became Hope for Life?
Megan: Yes. Every time I tell this story, the years get a little more further back. The summer after I completed my third year at SPU, I needed to complete an internship for my global and urban ministry minor. I was particularly interested in potentially doing the internship with a cross-cultural lens, and I found an opportunity to teach English in Rwanda to a group of church leaders as the country was preparing to transition from French to English.
I lived with a local family, and every day I would walk to my internship site. And on one of these days, I passed a group of children who was usually outside together. One day, I remember them asking me if I had any spare change and I didn’t, but what I did have on me was a loaf of bread. So I decided that I could happily share that with them. We sat down together and it’s then that I began to notice just more detailed observations about them. Some of them were really young. I found out later that the youngest was only 5 years old. Most of the boys were not wearing shoes and several had holes in their clothes and sores on their bodies. And it just took me back. It just made me pause and start to notice.
As I proceeded to pass them each day, we slowly just began forming a friendship. We would share meals together, play soccer, and just talk about life. Over time, as the trust began to grow, I began to hear their stories and learned that all of them were actively experiencing homelessness. As I was preparing to leave and head back to SPU for my senior year of college, I passed where the group normally was, and they were nowhere to be found. Someone else came up and told me that they had all been arrested for not having shoes and for sleeping on the sidewalk.
There were two local leaders who were in my English class, and through them, I learned that this was a common occurrence. These local leaders took me to the local jail, and together we began advocating for their release. It was really heartbreaking because as I left Rwanda, headed back to SPU, this group of kids who had become my friends was still in jail, and it was just so heartbreaking. But the local leaders said that they would continue to advocate for their release.
Fast forward a few weeks, I was back at SPU and found out that the prison said that they would release the youth if they had somewhere where they could go. So a friend and I decided that we could send a small bit of money every month to be able to rent a small house for the youth so that they could sleep there and technically have somewhere to go and get out of jail.
Amanda: First of all, this is just so incredible to me, especially at a time in history where it feels like we look at the millennial generation as fairly selfish. Forgive me if you don’t feel that way, I don’t feel that way, but that’s how it’s portrayed in the media quite a bit. That as a college student, you would not let go of something that was seemingly completely out of your hands, and yet you would not let go, and so I want to hear the rest of the story, of course, but can I also back up and say, I feel like the crux of this story, your entire Hope for Life story, it wasn’t the day you decided to rent that house. It was the day you sat down and shared your bread with the boys. You didn’t just hand it over, you sat down and began to build relationships with them.
Megan: Yeah. I had no idea what that one act would lead to, and here we are almost 12 years later, it’s pretty mind-blowing.
Amanda: All right. So the two of you rented the house, but you were back in the States. You had some help in Rwanda keeping this going. When did you decide that this wasn’t a single act, that you weren’t just going to send some money and then let the Rwandans take over? When did you decide this was work that had to continue?
Megan: Yeah, I remember a few months into this arrangement of my friend and I pooling our savings and sending over rent money to our friends. We just began to question what we were doing, and ultimately the sustainability of it. I had just had this powerful experience where I got to live in Rwanda for the summer, and I didn’t want to forget about it and just return to life at SPU unchanged, but we also just struggled knowing that we were only putting a Band-Aid on a wound that really required a lot more.
Our church found out about the situation and the youth group actually started raising funds to help. There was one particularly hard month. I remember when my personal savings had run out, and there was no money from the church youth group, and I remember just being so discouraged and like, what are we doing? This is crazy. I think that I might be done. It was just really hard to be very real, being a full-time student. I had a job, I had another internship, and I was in student leadership, and then on the side I was trying to like do fundraising to keep this going. And I just remember just getting really overwhelmed and tired and telling God that I didn’t have the money, and I wasn’t going to try to find the money anymore. Essentially that I was just kind of done.
And a couple days later I got a check for the exact amount that we needed to send to Rwanda from somebody that I did not know. And I kind of took that as a sign, my friends and I, that maybe we should keep going, like just for, OK, just one more month, God. But then just things kept on happening that just kept making it seem like this was bigger than us, and people were starting to get interested in partnering with us. And so ultimately we just had a hard conversation, my colleagues in Rwanda and myself, and just decided, hey, let’s put our heads together and do this more formally and more sustainably. And that was ultimately when Hope for Life was created with the vision of empowering youth to escape homelessness and holistically thrive.
“Things kept on happening that just kept making it seem like this was bigger than us, and people were starting to get interested in partnering with us.”
Amanda: So when you decided this is going to live on. This isn’t just a… Like you said, you’re not applying first aid anymore. You’re not just trying to stop certain bleeding, you’re trying to actually build a hospital and create ongoing work. And like you said, you’re also a full-time student, and have a job, and an internship, and trying to build your own life. How did you decide what that work would look like? I know how things are done in this type of scenario is just as important, if not more so, than what you actually do. So how did you embrace the “first do no harm” mandate of global work?
Megan: Yeah, I remember this was a topic of frequent conversation during my studies at SPU in global and urban ministry. We just were learning about empowerment and the importance of local leadership and respecting culture. And as I left the books behind and walked into this work in the real world, I quickly realized that it was much more complicated in real life than it seemed in my books. I also quickly realized that my good intentions were often not enough and that there were just so many factors involved, especially in cross-cultural ministry, like the intersectionality of race, power dynamics, and culture. In Rwanda, you also have the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, and the fact that the Western world basically turned its back and ignored that atrocity, which has led to complex trauma and damaged trust. And I will be the first to admit that, especially in those early years, I did a lot of things wrong. I learned a lot of things the hard way and caused unintentional harm to my colleagues and to the community that I was trying to involve myself with and live in, and be a part of creating change.
“As I left the books behind and walked into this work in the real world, I quickly realized that it was much more complicated in real life than it seemed in my books.”
My colleagues became friends, and they would just call me out with patience and also honesty when I would unintentionally do things that did cause harm. And 12 years later, I am still very much in that position. Just realizing that this work is lifelong, and it’s painful to realize things about yourself, but I’m also so grateful to have a community that is willing to call me out and help me learn and unlearn, and do lots of apologizing and educating myself so that I can be part of creating actual change instead of harm.
Amanda: We’ve had a few conversations about how you better flesh this out and do your best to do more help and less harm along the way. I know your website has two separate pages. One is who we are, and one is what we do. It’s interesting to me how often we see those two things as synonymous. As all one thing, and yet how important it’s been for you to separate those out. So let’s start with the what you do. What is Hope for Life today? What do they do?
Megan: Sure. Yeah. So Hope for Life revolves around providing youth with holistic, family-centered and trauma-informed interventions, to be able to empower youth to escape homelessness long term. We do this through three programs. The first meets youth where they’re at living on the streets. Our staff form relationships and help meet some of their basic needs, and just begin the conversation of developing long-term solutions to get them off the streets.
After that, the next step is rehabilitation. We provide transitional housing and 24/7 care to youth, enabling them to actively leave the streets and then begin to heal from that traumatic experience. And then lastly, and the ultimate goal, is reintegration. We reconnect youth with family members and both the youth and their family go through a process of healing and reconciliation, and just preparing for eventual reunification.
Amanda: Can you give me a couple, or maybe just one success story of a personal story of a child who has made it all the way through the program that you look to when things get rough and say, and this is why we keep going?
Megan: Yeah. Oh boy. There are a lot of stories that come to mind, but one of the most impactful for me personally, was a young boy who we were connected with through the local hospital, actually. One of the nurses had found him near death, living on the streets, and they found out that he was living with HIV. And as a result, he was disowned from his family and he just had nowhere else to go. So he was sleeping on the streets. The team went and visited him in the hospital, and that first day he couldn’t even look staff in the eye and he was just the skinniest, sickest human that we had ever seen. The doctors told us that we should expect that he would not live beyond a few years.
He decided that he would like to transition into Hope for Life’s rehabilitative center. And he began the process of just undergoing emotional and physical healing. He’s pretty much a walking miracle in my book. Not only did he defy the doctors and is alive and thriving today, but he was also able to reconcile with his dad before his father passed away. Through the reintegration process he was also able to reconnect with several extended family members. And just last year, he successfully moved home with his older sister. Right now he’s finishing vocational training and an internship in the culinary industry, and he’s expecting to graduate next year.
Amanda: That is absolutely miraculous. Can I ask, when you talk about the healing from trauma, because I think we are all aware that when you’re trying to recover physically and emotionally, it’s almost like the emotional has to come first. Like you almost can’t heal all the things the body needs to heal until you’ve decided that healing is worth it. What do you do? What is the first step when you’re approaching basically reconciliation with themselves and their own human being-ness?
Megan: Yeah, this is where my Rwandan colleagues definitely take the lead. Just knowing the culture and all the dynamics at play. We have several psychologists and social workers on staff who just do an incredible job of meeting kids where they’re at. And just beginning this process through individual counseling and group counseling. They use art therapy frequently. Several of our staff also have dogs who have been just really great for them to be able to connect to when humans don’t feel safe.
When the boys are staying at our rehabilitative center, they really just begin to develop a bond usually with each other that really kind of emulates brotherhood, and having come from similar backgrounds and experienced similar traumas, there’s just a natural connection that begins to form amongst them. That is really healing, as well, and helps them begin to just move through those steps of deciding to open and trust other people again. It’s definitely complex work that takes a long time, but yeah, that’s what comes to mind.
Amanda: Yeah, community is absolutely a God-given need. And I love that Hope for Life is intrinsically providing for that need for these boys that have had to look out really for themselves when they were way too young to be asked to do that.
Amanda: So that’s the “what you do” side. Now, let’s talk about the “who we are” side. Who is Hope for Life?
Megan: Yes. This is an area that I’m particularly passionate about. As we discussed a little bit earlier, there’s such a plethora of challenging dynamics that makes cross-cultural ministry truly challenging. As a team, we believe that how we go about working in the community is just as important as what we’re doing. Just because there’s such potential for both harm and healing. There have been so many layers and history of paternalism and saviorism in the traditional mission model that has, unfortunately, done extensive damage both globally and to Westerners. So we do our best to not perpetuate further harm, but also redefine and reimagine what healthy cross-cultural partnership can look like.
If you ask a Western person to describe poverty, they’ll typically speak about poverty purely in terms of economics. A lack of resources or a lack of knowledge, and holding this definition of poverty usually then shapes how one goes about reducing and fighting poverty. But if you ask a poor person what it means to experience poverty, in my experience, typically they will talk about the hopelessness, and the shame that they feel intrinsically about themselves. So with this in mind, we truly try to empower people to do things for themselves and to be the heroes in their own stories.
“We truly try to empower people to do things for themselves and to be the heroes in their own stories.”
In Rwanda, this means that our team is Rwandan-led. It’s so important for the community who’s watching, and for the Rwandan youth to grow up seeing people working toward change in their neighborhoods who look like them. We also believe it’s just way more effective and sustainable to have locals be the ones leading change in their neighborhoods because they grew up there, and they know the culture and the language in and out. And they know the inherent assets that the community already has. And so we believe they know the best solutions. So on the Western side, we really see ourselves as humble partners who have things to offer to the partnership, but also who just have so much to learn. And we try to take a backseat to their local leadership as much as possible.
Amanda: Yeah. I love that. I love that you really see it 100% as a partnership. That you do what you can do on this side, and they do what they can do on that side, and together you really fulfill God’s plan in the whole situation. No one side is going to complete the circle on their own.
Megan: That’s right. Yup.
Amanda: Yeah. Well, I’ve heard you say that if you had known where all this would lead in the beginning, you’re not sure if you would have continued. Would you be willing to share a couple of those low moments along the way, and honestly how you got through it and kept going to what you have today?
Megan: Yes. This is the tough question.
Amanda: I know, I’m sorry. We all hit those moments where we’re laying on the ground and we think we cannot get up again, and yet sometimes we do. And I think when we can look to people, like yourself, who have gotten up off the mat so many times to literally save lives, I think it helps us get up off the mat. So if you’re willing, I would love to hear a story or two along those lines.
Megan: Yes, this journey has been anything but glamorous or easy. I would even say it’s been consistently one of the hardest parts of my life for more than a decade. I’ve just experienced so many physical and mental health challenges to be just real as a result of just how challenging and how draining this work can be. There’s just been countless moments where I’ve been ready to throw in the towel. And especially just as a young person in those early years, right out of college, just feeling so much responsibility on my shoulders, constantly fighting for the organization to survive and to have resources, and then navigating a variety of complex trauma and cultural differences on top of it. It was just really hard, and leadership can be lonely at times.
I remember just leaving SPU, super idealistic and hopeful, and like ready to go empower local leaders, which was fantastic, but I also don’t think I realized how complex and all-consuming that this work can be. It was just a process that was painful to realize my idealism and my privilege while also being on the other side of the world and navigating all of this.
I think one of the things that consistently has kept me going is actually my own childhood trauma. I am a childhood abuse survivor, and I just remember feeling so alone and hopeless in moments growing up, and wishing more than anything for adults who would see me, and believe me, and be willing to journey with me toward hope. And it’s just such an honor to be a part of giving this to other young people.
Personal counseling is also a must in my book, as long as I’m doing this work, but also just seeing youth face such unimaginable hardship and being so close to giving up and then watching them heal and reconnect and start to hope for the future again. It ultimately just keeps me going.
Amanda: Hopefully those high moments, like you said, seeing the success stories and even success in the very specific work that you do. I had the privilege of being at the Hope for Life fundraising gala in 2019, and surrounded by hundreds of friends and strangers. Can you tell us how much you raised in one night?
Megan: Yeah. Let’s see, last year it was close to $200,000, which is just so overwhelming. Just especially the experience outside of even how much we raised, of just the experience of seeing, like you said, hundreds of people that I don’t know well, and who are complete strangers willing to spend their evenings with us, and to learn about this, and be willing to join us in doing something about it. It’s so encouraging. I definitely ended up in tears that night.
Amanda: Gets to me, honestly, it’s a matter of degrees, isn’t it? That day that you said, I guess this thing has run its course and a check a stranger for the amount that you needed showed up and you said, OK, I guess God is in this. And you know, decade-plus later, you go into an evening going, “God, can we even keep this up at this at this rate, at this pace of serving need? And $200,000 comes in, mostly from strangers. And again, isn’t it just a matter of degrees of God saying, “Okay, I guess we keep going?”
Megan: Yep, yep. One step at a time.
Amanda: So what advice would you give to the college student, to the young people listening to this who may have a dream similar to yours, or a dream very different, but just as difficult to achieve? What would you tell them to do? What do they need to tackle, or take on, or put into practice, that would get them where they want to be?
Megan: Yes, I have had many young people approach me and want to know how they can do something similar.
Amanda: Give me the road map, right? Give me the road map.
Megan: And my answer might be surprising. I actually usually tell them not to immediately. I advise them to hold onto their dream and to let it marinate, and to find another nonprofit that already exists, that’s doing something similar and to learn from them, to serve their mission. And then, a couple of years down the line, or whatever amount of time has gone by, if the dream is still there, not only will you feel more committed to do it, but you will also have real-world experiences, and connections, and resources under your belt.
I also tell people to find existing leaders and mentors who are already making a difference in their communities and to align them with themselves, to volunteer for these leaders and submit to them and just watch, listen, and learn all that they can. My last piece of advice would just be encouraging them to embrace hard conversations and personal examination surrounding issues of race, power, and privilege. Especially in the nonprofit sector, the intersectionality of these issues is inescapable. And especially in this day and age, we just have to find ways to do better. It’s a little bit different, I guess than how my journey ended up happening, but I think if I could have done some of these things a little bit better, I would have saved my body a lot of heartache and stress and tears.
Amanda: Yeah. I can tell you from my own experience learning what not to do is just as important as knowing what to do. And like you said, you can save you a whole lot of heartache and wear and tear along the way.
Well, Megan, as always, it is fabulous talking to you and just about brings me to tears every time we talk thinking about what you have accomplished at such a young age, and frankly not just about what you’ve accomplished, but what you’ve been willing to sacrifice to get there. That is just as big a piece, if not bigger, for me than the rest of it. But let me end with this: It’s the last question that we ask each of our guests. If you could have every one of us in Seattle wake up tomorrow and do one thing differently that’s going to make the world a better place, what would you have us do?
Megan: I think actually similar to the advice that I would give young people in referenced to the last question is to be willing to ask the hard questions, and to be honest with yourself in answering them. I think just through this journey, I have just learned that my good intentions are a great starting point, but just so often, they’re just not enough in our world. And so if you can ask yourself those hard questions about the privilege that you inherently have, and just be willing to constantly examine ways that we might unintentionally be perpetuating harmful narratives and systems, and thereby telling people who were also created in God’s image that they might somehow be less than.
Yeah, I would say that from personal experience, this process is very hard, and often leads to more questions than answers, and doesn’t have a definitive ending point. But in my story, it’s just also been completely necessary. And if we do this, I think we can not only help our world become a more just place, but it will also help evolve us personally into the people that God created us to be. So I’d say be willing to ask the hard questions.
Amanda: And if I could, if you wouldn’t mind me being so brazen as to add onto what you said with your own story, to sit down and share the bread. Don’t just give the bread, sit down and share the bread, because then we begin relationships, and then we gain perspective, and we do all the things that you just said. So thank you so much, Megan. I know I’m going to put a sticky note on my mirror that says, share the bread, and I’m going to try and do that every day from now on. Thank you so much for joining us.
Megan: Thanks for having me.
Photos by Amanda Good