Lakers guard Steve Blake and wife, Kristen, sponsored a 10-year-old girl… (Courtesy of African New…)
The humanity struck the Blake family through the simplest gestures.
After writing to their sponsored child in Rwanda for the past three years, Lakers guard Steve Blake and his wife, Kristen, visited her in person. On their seven-day trip through Africa New Life Ministries, the Blakes saw everything. They witnessed poverty. They saw the traces of genocide inflicted on this land 18 years ago. They sensed hope amid the destruction. They noticed how the Blakes’ ties with sports, the Lakers, and their Christian faith cemented a bond with the community. The Rwandan people expressed gratitude over the Blakes’ mere presence. And the Blakes felt humbled by the Rwandans' overwhelming affection.
The whole experience was simply Divine. Although it’s pronounced differently, that’s also the name of the 10-year-old girl the Blakes have sponsored.
“When you’re sponsoring a child so far away, you hear about what it’s doing for them, but you can’t truly grasp it until you actually get over there,” Steve Blake said in a phone interview with The Times. “This is truly changing their lives.”
Before her sponsorship, Divine lived in a mud-filled hut without a roof, with little clothing and with no parents. With the Blakes sponsoring her for $130 a month, Divine lives in an orphanage with a full bed. She has a pair of clothes and shoes. Divine goes to school and a yearly youth camp. She has daily meals and medical insurance.
Meanwhile, most sponsorships cost $39 a month, which gives a child access to a day-care center and school, health insurance, a set of clothes and shoes and at least one meal a week.
“The difference between a sponsored child and a child who is not sponsored is like a day of light, African New Life Ministries pastor Charles Mugisha Buregeya said. " It provides hope.”
No matter how small.
The Blakes made a sobering visit to a memorial of the 1994 genocide, where more than 800,000 people were killed within a three-month span. And they say they initially struggled comprehending whether they actually were making a difference. According to the United Nations, 60% of the Rwandan people live below the poverty line.
“You’re wondering, are you really helping or is it just one of those things where it’s us as Americans saying, ‘Look at me, I’m so great. I visited a homeless person and now I’m going back to my big fancy house,’” Kristen Blake said. “You just want to make sure you are helping and doing it for the right reasons.”
The Blakes, who traveled with about 30 people representing Grace Chapel Church in Portland, discovered they made a difference through those small gestures.
After Divine stayed mostly quiet during the Blakes’ initial arrival, Kristen stayed with her. When they were alone, Divine and Kristen soon sang with each other and cited Bible verses. Divine couldn’t stop sobbing once they left.
“To leave this poor little girl who has no mom and dad and not to go back to her for several years, it just seemed like a long time. It was heartbreaking for me when she’s crying,” Kristen recalled. “Every time I heard that, it broke my heart. I wanted to take her home with me.”
Steve Blake mostly held court with his athletic background.
Steve routinely played pickup soccer games. The family provided players with uniforms and gym bags. After Steve taught a group of basketball players the most basic ball-handling, shooting and screening concepts, he saw them successfully mimic those lessons in a series of pick-up games, including one against the Rwandan national team.
“You only had to tell them to do something once,” Steve said. “You could see when we had breaks, they’d go to the sides and be working on their own. They definitely were really into it, paying attention and focused on getting better.”
That’s partly because even Rwandan citizens are enthralled with the Lakers, partly because of the team’s brand and partly because of Kobe Bryant’s star power.
After their seven-day trip ended, Rwandan basketball players marveled at how Blake countered the image of a spoiled and arrogant NBA player they imagined would step foot on their native soil.
“No one expected that him, as famous as he is, would play come to Rwanda and visit with us,” said Roger Rukundo, the youth minister of African New Life Ministries. “That was powerful.”
There were other powerful images.
Once Kristen entered a family’s home with a backpack filled with basic necessities, Divine’s grandmother nearly broke down in tears. She thanked God. She hugged Kristen. The grandmother held up the backpack in awe.