Sending books to Rwanda turned Bloomington woman's grief to hope

Read the full article here!

In 2009, Kim Harms' 19-year-old-son died by suicide during his first year of engineering school at Columbia University.

"I was completely destroyed, completely devastated," said Harms, a retired dentist who lives in Bloomington. "I was like walking death. I could hardly breathe."

But Harms' heartbreak turned to hope, unexpectedly delivered by a country that had suffered through tragedy of its own — one of the worst genocides of modern times.

Rwanda, Harms learned, somehow had dealt with its horror. People who had lost spouses, parents and children found ways to move on with their lives and live in peace.

"I thought, oh my god, I lost one son — they lost a whole family," she said. "They're recovering from this; I can, too. I just need to find out how to do it. ... That's what Rwanda did for me."

Like most Americans, Harms heard about the genocide as it was happening in 1994. Between April 7 and July 15 of that year, members of the country's minority ethnic group, the Tutsis, were murdered by Hutus, the majority ethnic group, wielding machetes and rifles. The death toll — which also included moderate Hutus who tried to protect Tutsis, is estimated at more than a million.

Eventually a rebel group of mostly Tutsi refugees in Uganda returned to Rwanda and stopped the killings. Like most Americans, Harms was horrified by the killings' scale and brutality, but hadn't thought much about it in recent years.

Then Harms had lunch with an old friend, Pam Pappas Stanoch, and mentioned that she and her husband, Jim (who died last year), were looking for a way to process their grief over Eric's death by helping someone else who had suffered.

Stanoch's immediate response: "Rwanda."

Stanoch had been to Rwanda multiple times over the years to teach French, starting before the genocide.

"I love it there," Stanoch said. "I love the people, I love teaching those children. ... When the genocide happened, I just couldn't believe that those warm, loving people were going through that."

Stanoch has long been involved with Books for Africa, a St. Paul-based organization that sends books to schools and libraries in every country in Africa — 53 million books over the organization's 34 years, said executive director Pat Plonski. Many of the children in those countries don't attend school or, if they do, have never owned a book.

"We focus on books because the route out of poverty, in our view, is education," Plonski said.

Stanoch suggested turning to Books for Africa, and Harms immediately embraced the idea. Eric, who'd been recruited by Columbia, elected to student government and named to the dean's list in his first semester, had always "loved books — loved books," Harms said. "I said to her, 'Let's do this.'"

The result was the Eric Harms Memorial Library. She got other dentists involved, raised money to deliver books, and traveled to Rwanda to arrange partnerships. Over the years, Harms has helped send 254,000 books to Rwanda, Plonski said.

"Kim is a great example of someone, a volunteer, who makes that connection between [Books for Africa] and the readers, the kids in Africa," Plonski said.