Kigali, Rwanda - When Damas Gisimba's father died in 1986, he left the orphanage he founded to his eldest son. In his father's memory, Mr. Gisimba named the orphanage "Centre Memorial de Gisimba."
Less than ten years later, Mr. Gisimba's memorial orphanage would become a place of historical importance.
During 100 days of ravage killing, he opened the doors of his father's orphanage to hundreds of children and their mothers as the 1994 Rwandan genocide took over the streets outside.
"We took in more than 325 kids and 80 mothers sheltering them from the slaughter," said Mr. Gisimba through a translator. "It was very hard because the rebels were trying to get inside and kill the kids. Luckily, we didn't lose any."
According to locals, Mr. Gisimba is living legend in Kigali and the orphanage is still home to nearly 150 children.
"When we heard about this orphanage," said 1st Lt Jenny Lovett, 322 Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs officer, "I knew we had to do something."
That "something" included arranging a last minute donation fest.
"We decided to just collect money and throw the kids a party with toys, games and food," said Lieutenant Lovett. "We had to act fast, though, because by the time we found out about the orphanage, we were only days away from the end of our mission here in Kigali."
The members of the 322nd AEG are deployed to Kigali, Rwanda, to support the African Union by providing airlift to AU troops and equipment into the Darfur region of Sudan.
Within 24 hours, the 322nd AEG raised nearly $700 dollars. The Airmen purchased hundreds of dollars worth of soccer balls, volleyballs, coloring books, games, food to give to the children. There was even enough left over for a $250 donation to the orphanage itself.
Upon arrival at the orphanage, the Airmen were greeted by a group of very excited children.
"There were quite a few older kids," said Master Sgt. Jeff Sawyer, 322nd AEG first sergeant. "But I guess that's not surprising considering the history of the country."
Half the Airmen played soccer and volleyball with the older kids while the other Airmen prepared for the party.
Popcorn, peanut butter sandwiches, candy, cookies and punch covered wooden tables in the orphanage's dining room as the children excitedly filled rows of wooden benches.
"I would like to say thank you," said Denise, a 16-year-old orphan, in nearly perfect English. "We're so excited to have you here. It shows us that you think about us."
The children serenaded the Airmen as they set up the mini-feast to the biblical song "He's got the whole world in his hands."
After the food was served, the children entertained the Airmen with local Rwandan dances and even taught the less rhythmically inclined Americans a few steps.
"I thought that was very nice. It was neat that they wanted to show us a bit of their culture and to thank us for what was really a small gesture on our part," Sergeant Sawyer said.
As the afternoon winded down, Airmen exchanged email addresses with the children to keep in touch.
"This was just one afternoon," said Lieutenant Lovett. "I wish we had more time. We could have done more."
Mr. Gisimba, however, thought the afternoon proved one vital thing: there are people who care about the children of Rwanda.
"The numbers are growing again now because AIDS is killing off their parents," said Mr. Gisimba. "It's a lot of work to get this generation to grow. If more people would think of the kids like you—we could make a better world."