Matt Renaud is a man who understands challenges. The fifth-year Varsity Blues linebacker balances a busy life of football with the demands of an academic career in the U of T's neuroscience and molecular biology programs. But as Renaud enters his final Ontario University Athletics season, he will bring a new perspective to both the field and the classroom after a life-altering summer experience.
The Ottawa, Ont. native spent two unforgettable months in Gisenyi, Rwanda – and the trip got off to a pretty rocky start.
"I flew out, landed there and had to wait two hours for someone to pick me up because there was a miscommunication about my arrival date," says Renaud. "That was fun," he says jokingly, "I was alone for two hours in the middle of the night after a 25-hour journey."
His introduction to Rwanda was hardly smooth but by the end, Renaud was educated on the many obstacles faced by the people of this African country. He made the journey thanks to a Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee scholarship, awarded by the Government of Canada for students to travel abroad. Renaud had a choice between going to Kenya – an experience that would have been largely lab-based – or Rwanda. Ultimately, he chose the latter based on the fact that his time spent there would be directly in the Gisenyi community, helping to bring necessary change for the residents.
"I've done lots of lab work over the course of my university career, so I wanted to try my hand at something a little different. I wanted to spread the net," Renaud says of the chance to have an impact on the community.
Based with a host family, he worked at a disability-focused community centre in Gisenyi, with the goal of implementing programs that would positively impact beneficiaries. Renaud started by carefully observing the inner workings of the centre, from the pre and primary schools, and vocational skills program, to the transition skills class (preparing special education students for mainstream schooling) and the community-based rehabilitation unit.
He would focus his attention on the latter, which provides assistance to approximately 60 people, mostly children, and many of whom live with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to spinal cord injury. Renaud would go on home visits, as well, walking up to seven kilometers a day to reach out to about 35 additional residents in the community.
"Most of these patients were people who couldn't make it into the centre for various accessibility reasons," he says. "They were in a wheelchair or they were too far away; sometimes up to a five-hour walk, one way, from the centre. Not many roads are paved in Rwanda. It's a lot of volcanic rock, very uneven ground.
"I started brainstorming with the staff. I tried combining the assessments we completed with the information I received from my colleagues to determine what would benefit both the staff and the patients. Aside from learning from the physios and working directly with the patients, which was awesome, I did a lot of admin work like organizing schedules. We created a basic schedule that allowed us to track who we were visiting in a given week so we had an idea of who we missed, who we weren't able to see, and the last time we saw a specific patient."
Renaud quickly began to understand the magnitude of the challenges faced by the locals.
"[The home visit patients] were people who didn't have access to basic necessities, like health care and adequate nutrition," he says, specifically referencing one child with a spinal cord injury bearing a constant cough.
Renaud got to work. He developed an exercise program, with pictures, so the beneficiaries could easily follow. And when he found out that a donation of 800 Euros to the centre had gone unused, he pitched the idea of a health care and nutrition assistance program, which also helped address some obstacles like paying for insurance and getting access to transportation.
"The objective was to give people in the villages and the towns different ways to access quality nutrition as well as provide access to healthcare services, and to do it in a sustainable way," Renaud says.
He also put his athletic expertise to use when it came to activity for children. Fridays at the pre and primary schools tended to be chaotic when 600 kids would all hit the basketball court at the same time. Renaud began to break them down into smaller groups, utilizing additional space like a local soccer pitch to implement games like Bocce and life-sized Tic Tac Toe.
"Bocce was a huge hit," says Renaud. "We made them out of socks filled with rocks. Kids were coming up to me mid-week and asking, 'Can you go get your box?'"
Renaud's impact during his trip was little surprise to Toronto head coach Greg Marshall, who knows his veteran linebacker is an extraordinary student-athlete and citizen.
"Matt's experiences this past summer are remarkable and it's amazing he can accomplish all of that and be a top-notch football player on the field," says Coach Marshall. "He is certainly setting himself up well for what he wants to achieve later in life."
Whether that's med school or more work abroad, Renaud will be ready. He has travelled internationally before, but Renaud says he didn't really know what to expect from Rwanda. He knew the "dominating discourse" overshadowing the country's recent political history pertains largely to the horrifying genocide of 1994 and that the economy was growing quickly, but that was about it. Renaud learned that discussing the happenings of 1994 is very taboo among Rwandans, though the people were always interested in hearing his perspective on the nation's disturbing past.
"It helped me realize the importance of history in general and how it shapes a country, a population, and subgroups of a population," Renaud says. "It's easy to remain detached from events such as this one from across the globe. Their impact can easily be overlooked. My stay gave me a new perspective on many issues affecting people around the world."
Renaud remains in contact with his Rwandan friends, typically through What's App. And he has some emotional memories about the entire experience. An Ebola scare in the nearby city of Goma (in the Democratic Republic of Congo) forced an early return to Canada, an eye-opener given his desire to do more work internationally.
But there were several touching moments, as well. Renaud's host family had a baby named Ora. The child had never seen a white person before and he was struck by her confusion when their eyes first met.
"That lasted about a week and then she warmed up to me," he says. "By the end of my stay, her and I were buds. She would wait for me when I came home from work and reach up to me for a hug.
"Those connections made it difficult to leave."