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People Making A Difference: Chrissie Lam

This New York fashion designer taps the talents of her fellow artists to help the orphans of Rwanda.

By Jina MooreCorrespondent / October 13, 2009

Chrissie Lam, founder of Create for a Cause, stands with racks of clothes designed and donated by artists. Sale of the clothes will raise money for orphans and survivors of genocide in Rwanda.

Ann Hermes/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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New York

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.

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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.

Lam knows the world of artists and designers. She's a senior concept designer at American Eagle Outfitters in New York and a member of the board of its charitable foundation.

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?

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