Documentary captures Santa Fe Christian students’ life-changing trip to Rwanda


By Joe Tash

A summer mission to the African nation of Rwanda left an indelible impression on a group of Santa Fe Christian School students and, recently, the school premiered a video of the trip that chronicles what one student called a “life-changing” experience.

Nine students from the Solana Beach school traveled to the Rwandan capital of Kigali last summer with teachers and administrators, where the group taught English, soccer techniques and even a few magic tricks to students at Kigali Christian School.

The school in November held a screening of the documentary film “Mission Rwanda,” which was directed by Aaron Chang, a Santa Fe parent, acclaimed surf photographer and local gallery owner.

The film shows the students preparing for their trip, arriving in Rwanda, and it follows them as they visit the nation’s genocide museum, attend a church service, and spend time at the Rwandan school.

The students were visibly moved after touring the museum, which documents the 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 Tutsis were murdered by Hutus in a 100-day frenzy of violence sparked by the assassination of the country’s Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana.

Chang said he originally intended to make a 5- to 10-minute short film about the trip to promote the school’s mission program, but decided to make a longer documentary after seeing how deeply the students were affected by the experience.

“By the end of the movie, the comments coming out of their mouths… were so deep and profound, universal things were being said by the students that most adults never get,” Chang said. “In a 12-day period you can actually witness a transformation in these students.”

Andrew Appleby, a senior at Santa Fe, agreed that the trip was “life changing.”

“I felt like a completely different person when I came back. It definitely softened my heart,” Andrew said.

“It made me want to serve a lot more,” he said. “It made me much more aware of what’s going on. There’s more outside of my community, my little bubble.”

Katie North, also a senior, said the experience reaffirmed her desire to become a teacher when she graduates from college.

“It was definitely an awesome experience. I feel like we really made a difference. They were so excited in the classrooms,” she said.

The students said they left for the trip with the idea of helping the African students, but ended up being helped themselves, both in terms of broadening their compassion for others, and in appreciating the advantages they enjoy as Americans.

Andrew said he plans to go back to Africa next summer, while Katie will travel to Thailand after graduation.

The film had two purposes, said Tom Bennett, head of schools at Santa Fe Christian, who accompanied the students to Rwanda: first, to promote the school’s mission programs, and second, to highlight the needs of people in places such as Rwanda.

Santa Fe has programs from pre-school through 12th grade, and enrolls just over 1,000 students, Bennett said. By the time they graduate, roughly 80 percent of the school’s students have participated in one or more mission trips.

Last year, about 200 Santa Fe students took part in mission trips both abroad and within the United States, Bennett said, including countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Central America.

While the school can reach the students’ heads, or intellect, through classroom instruction, the mission trips touch their hearts, Bennett said, helping them truly understand what people have gone through in less developed parts of the world.

“It’s not ‘till you go and see and understand and develop these relationships that it becomes personal,” Bennett said.

Or as Katie North put it: “Love and joy is the best way to go. It’s so much more fulfilling in life.”