Mar 01, 2013

Teen’s Memorial Fund Reaches From Austin to Rwanda

By Rachel Ross Thompson
For Reporting Texas

Ben Breedlove is still making a difference, more than a year after his death. His legacy is alive in Rwanda, far from his Austin home.

Breedlove, a teenager suffering from a heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, was already a YouTube regular in December 2011, when he posted “This is My Story,” a two-part video in which he held up hand-written note cards stating his thoughts on life, death, pain and peace. On Dec. 25, 2011, he died of cardiac arrest. He was 18.

After his death, the video garnered millions of views and widespread media attention. Response was so overwhelming that Ben’s family created a memorial fund that would go toward one their son’s passions — helping disadvantaged children in Africa.

Ben’s mother, Deanne Breedlove, said her son had never been to Rwanda but had researched child soldiers in Africa for a school project.

“It’s just something that really touched him, and he wondered if he could ever help somehow, but he had no clue if he could,” she said.

The family set up Ben’s memorial fund through Africa New Life, a non-profit ministry organization; neighbors and friends had done volunteer work with the group in Rwanda. Those friends are ensuring that Ben’s fund is specifically helping young boys through education, care and the teaching of life skills to further their careers and provide for better lives.

Rwanda, a nation torn by genocide, is rebuilding itself. Many of its young people, however, live on the streets, laboring tirelessly or even stealing because they often have little other choice.

“There are kids living in trash dumps, and it’s horrible to know that there are people going through that,” Deanne said. “In honor of Ben, we wanted the funds to go to help take kids off the street.”

Ben’s memorial fund has raised $35,000 through December 2012. According to Natalie Green, a family friend who has worked with Africa New Life, 50 boys have been enrolled in the program and 35 will be sponsored completely with money generated from Ben’s fund. The cost for one teenager to go through the yearlong program is $1,000.

“Those kids will be told about Ben and his life, and they’ll learn about the legacy he left,” Green said. “They’ll know that [their] scholarships are coming from that.”

Dave Crosswhite, U.S. director of operations for Africa New Life, said that while donations continue to come in through Ben’s fund, they have slowed down since the Christmas holidays. Still, he added, it’s the largest memorial fund ever created for Africa New Life, which has a $6.3 million annual budget.

Experts who help set up memorial funds say maintaining momentum is often difficult. Amy Allen, scholarship director for Austin Community Foundation, said that while some older funds continue to receive donations long after they’re created, others die off. Donations tend to pick up around birthdays or holidays, she said. Publicity through websites is a large factor in donations, with much of the money based on personal relationships with the family.

Deanne said she has been touched by the donations given in Ben’s honor.

“I would hope that people who are initially giving in honor of Ben will realize what their donations are doing,” she said. “I think a lot of people gave for emotional reasons or just to be kind, but I really do hope that they see the value in it.”

Green, who has worked with Africa New Life since 2009 and has traveled to Rwanda several times, said educating teens resonates with Rwandans.

“They view things like education as such a privilege and such a desire,” she said. “Since the genocide, the nation has been rebuilding itself, and it’s really a story of forgiveness and great hope.”

Clay Davis, a neighbor and family friend of the Breedloves who also has worked with teenagers going through the program, said the boys learn more than work skills.

“It’s tough for them to go to school and have commitments when they’ve never had anybody in their lives tell them they have to do anything,” said Davis, whose wife, Meredith, is also a volunteer for the program. “It’s great because it requires kids to take that responsibility and be willing to take the first step.”

The teens spend mornings at training school, learning skills such as carpentry, masonry, auto mechanics or technology. In the afternoons, they move to the Dream Center, where they are mentored and taught basic English.

Deanne Breedlove said her family would like to travel to Africa to meet the teenagers helped by Ben’s fund.

“One of the most important things about the ministry is that they teach [the teenagers] that they’re very much loved and that there’s a purpose for their lives because God created them,” she said. “I’d like to see them helped eternally and not just here on Earth.”

“I don’t know if Ben can see from heaven, but I know he would be so overwhelmed to know these kids were helped,” his mother added. “I’d love to see his face when he finds out.”