People Making A Difference: Chrissie Lam
This New York fashion designer taps the talents of her fellow artists to help the orphans of Rwanda.
Ann Hermes/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
When Chrissie Lam started writing down the stories of the children of Gisimba Orphanage, she thought it might help them find foreign sponsors. It was August 2008, her first day in Rwanda, and she didn't yet realize that those stories would so eerily echo the stories of other Rwandan children – those who didn't survive.
She hadn't yet made the pilgrimage made by the thousands of tourists, business people, aid workers, and diplomats who pass through this tiny East African country each year.
Inevitably, they visit Gisozi.
Near the top of Gisozi, a hill set back from the hustle and bustle of downtown Kigali, the Rwandan capital, stands the Kigali Memorial Center. It commemorates Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Within 100 days, 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by militant Hutu soldiers and informal militias determined to wipe out the country's ethnic Tutsi minority.
The center's most moving tribute may be its Children's Room. In a sun-drenched space with bright orange walls, visitors learn the stories of 14 of the children who died in the genocide. They peer back at visitors from large photographs – toddling across a room, posing for a portrait, blowing out a first birthday candle.
Below the photos are short, poignant biographies: Francine, age 12, liked swimming; eggs; and "Fanta tropical," the local lemon-flavored soda. She was killed with a machete.
Ms. Lam would later visit the center. But on the day she sat down with some of Gisimba Orphanage's 200 young people she had no idea that their stories would sound so similar, expressing a love of simple things: Patrick, 15, wants to be an engineer. He likes telling jokes, basketball, and Charlie Chaplin movies. He has no memory of the genocide, and he does not know who his parents were.
"It was really heavy stuff," Lam says of the interviews with the orphans. "But it was also inspiring ... the resilience of those kids! They all seemed so strong."
UNICEF estimates that there are 160,000 orphans in Rwanda who have difficulty meeting basic needs: Few find themselves with funds to pay school fees, about $600 a year.
But now their need has become the centerpiece for Create for a Cause (createforacause.com), a network founded by Lam.
When she told her bosses that she wanted to take a three-month sabbatical from work to volunteer in Rwanda, she also orchestrated a major donation: American Eagle sent with her 18 boxes of donated goods – first-aid supplies, soccer balls, book bags, toys, and, of course, clothes.
The project seemed so straightforward – so easy, almost. Lam realized she had tapped a well of charitable goodwill in the fashion industry.
"I know a lot of people in the industry. I can get free stuff. I can work my connections with the foundation and have them ship stuff. I can get donations together," she says.
But, she wondered, what if she tapped another resource: the artists themselves?
Inspired by the "Oprah's Big Give" reality TV show about would-be philanthropists – and put in touch by friends with a filmmaker in Rwanda who needed a hand – Lam decided to enlist colleagues in the causes she was discovering.
"I had all these amazing, talented friends and co-workers who would love to get involved," she says. She asked them to design and make T-shirts she could sell to raise money.
"I didn't want it to be just about my trip to Africa," she says. "I wanted to make other people a part of it."
Fundraising traditionally has meant starting an organization and sending letters to foundations asking for help. But Lam's generation of 20-somethings is different: They tweet on Twitter, post on Facebook, and long ago they left daily diaries for online blogs.
Create for a Cause has no president, no executive board, and no growth strategy. Its projects begin when someone sends Lam an e-mail. So far, the group has two Rwanda projects: the orphanage and Voices of Rwanda, an effort to collect the stories of genocide survivors.
It also supports AFEM, an association of female journalists in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. So far it's contributed to both funds, such as the $3,000 it cost to ship those 18 boxes of goods to Rwanda, and volunteer time, such as the graphic designer who designed AFEM's business cards.
Seven students are now in school because of the money Lam helped raise, says Idelphonse Niyongana, director of the orphanage.
If that all sounds like small-scale philanthropy, that's the point, Lam says.
Deena Suh, who designed T-shirts sold to benefit AFEM, says Lam's collaborative approach appeals to creative professionals: "She took into consideration my creative sensibility, what [AFEM] might be looking for, or just personalities that would work well together. I don't know what the magic formula was, but the way that it worked, I think, is incredible."
Bryan Collins designed T-shirts for Lam's first fundraiser. His artwork – interconnected hearts in the shape of Africa – is her bestseller.
"I think that she was really good about leveraging people's natural talents, about not asking people to overextend themselves but to do what they do best and put that toward a cause," he says.
Along the way, Lam has learned philanthropy can take some bizarre twists. A dozen boxes of clothes were held up by customs in Rwanda for weeks. On the day Lam thought she would finally bring them to Gisimba, the officials said they needed to be fumigated.
"Fumigated?" Lam remembers asking incredulously. "They told me, 'There are holes in these clothes. There must be insects in them.' I had to explain that jeans with holes are fashionable in America, that people spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on them."
After Lam pointed to the holes in her own jeans, they finally relented.
Lam, meanwhile, continues to receive e-mails both from artists who want to help and from organizations that need a hand.
Simply pairing them up, she says, is precisely her vision. "If I can be a philanthropic matchmaker," she says, "that's perfect."