Local Catholic shares her gifts in Rwanda through CRS program

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Elizabeth Norden poses for a photo with a member of the Rwandan Development Organization. (Photo provided)

St. Clement parishioner Elizabeth Norden always admired the work of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas relief and development agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and wanted to volunteer with them. She got her chance last August as a volunteer with its Farmer-to-Farmer Program in Rwanda.

The program is a partnership with USAID that matches volunteers from the United States to agriculture organizations in Uganda, Ethiopia, Benin, Rwanda, Nepal and Timor-Leste with the goal of promoting sustainable economic growth, food security and agricultural development.

While volunteers with a background in agriculture are needed, so are those with backgrounds in areas such as information technology, finance, marketing and fundraising. Norden herself has experience in advocacy work on a state level and is director of foundation relations with Mercy Home for Boys and Girls.

She spent more than two weeks working with the Rwandan Development Organization, a non-governmental organization founded in 1995 focused on improving the lives of Rwanda’s rural communities. She trained staff in best practices for grant writing and how to find and apply for funding opportunities from private foundations in the United States.

“It was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had, both personally and professionally because I learned as much from them as I’m hoping that they learned from me and my experience in fundraising and advocacy,” said Norden. “It’s being a part of something larger than yourself and that is what was most meaningful.”

Volunteers must be U.S. citizens and complete an application process before they are matched with organizations in the host countries. The program pays for airfare, immunizations and accommodations in the country.

Farmer-to-Farmer runs in five-year cycles and CRS is on its second cycle with USAID, said Maria Figueroa, Farmer-to-Farmer recruitment manager for CRS.

“Volunteers don’t come in as consultants to execute a project and be gone, they come in as technical advisors who have a deep interest in helping an organization get to the root of problems and collaboratively come up with solutions,” she said.

It fits with CRS’ mission to help the poorest of the poor through empowerment.

“Because Farmer-to-Farmer transfers technical knowledge rather than funds, this empowers individuals to raise their own capacities in ways that allow them to improve their livelihoods in sustainable ways,” Figueroa said. “Although we work with individuals at multiple levels, many are smallholder farmers who struggle to produce enough to cover household basics and school fees.”

CRS’ Farmer-to-Farmer Program is new in Rwanda, according to Mireille Ngokion, Farmer-to-Farmer program coordinator for the agency.

“We have been operating in the country for about one year, since October 2018. Elizabeth was the first volunteer assisting the Rwanda Development Organization. RDO will receive additional volunteers to follow up on Elizabeth’s recommendations in the coming years,” Ngokion said.

Prior to her trip, Norden was put in touch with the Rwanda Development Organization to learn what they were already doing in the area of fundraising so she could build upon that. In addition to training materials, she developed lists of private foundations in the U.S. that have done work in Rwanda and Africa.

“It was a lot of preparation,” Norden said. 

On the ground, she met with the host organization and together they set expectations for the training. Then she worked with the organization daily. She also visited two farming cooperatives.

Last year was the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, when more than 800,000 people were killed in three months. Every person Norden met had been affected in some way by the genocide and their kindness and resilience moved her.

“To be able to play some small role in trying to give people opportunity, that’s what it’s all about,” Norden said. “Love thy neighbor as thyself. That’s what’s important to me. So to be able to do this in another country as well is incredibly meaningful.”

Since she returned, she’s been sharing the news about the Farmer-to-Farmer Program with others.

“When you discover something that can have such an impact on people in developing countries around the world, you want to share that with your colleagues, your friends, your community and beyond because everyone has something to give,” she said. “We all have gifts that we can share with people, whether here or around the world. It’s incumbent upon us to do so.”

Ngokion agreed.

“Reach out to a recruiter. The name of our program can sometimes scare non-farmers away, but the truth is that farmers need technical assistance in a range of areas and our assignments reflect their needs,” she said. “If anyone thinks they might be interested in the program, I encourage them to reach out to a recruiter to learn more.”

For information about CRS’ Farmer-to-Farmer Program, visit


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