Feisty and 88, Arlene Brown doesn’t let herself get bossed around. But when the Rwandan government started closing orphanages, even she — whose Urukundo Village had become one of the most celebrated homes for children in the East African country since Brown opened it in 2006 — had to oblige.
So, four years after The Inquirer first told the story of this age-defying Pennsylvania native unwilling to “sit back and rot" in retirement, Brown is doubling down to remain relevant and impactful.
“Until the Lord calls me home, there is no end," she said recently, back in the United States to see family and fund-raise. "And I’m not in any hurry for that because I’ve got a lot of work yet to do.”
Brown abides the Lord, the force that first drew her to Africa, in 1996. Then 65, she had prayed in her Williamsport home for something more purposeful than the traveling she had been doing since retiring from GTE Sylvania after 20 years as a supervisor of circuit board production. The next morning, she read about a mission trip to Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo, to work in a refugee camp not far from the Rwanda border. Volunteers were needed to help with children who had lost parents in the horrifying 1994 genocide that claimed about 800,000 lives.
Brown, a former nurse who had done some of her training at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, joined the mission and was deeply moved by the experience. She would make two more mission trips to Rwanda before deciding to sell her home and most of her belongings to relocate more than 7,000 miles away to care for that country’s orphans. She bought a house and nearly 10 acres on a mountainside about an hour’s ride from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, taking in the first children in 2006 — when she was 75.
She named her village Urukundo, which means “love” in the native language of Kinyarwanda. The children affectionately dubbed her “Mama Arlene.”
When I visited Urukundo in 2015, it was home to 54 children, ages 8 months to 21 years, and included classrooms for preschool through third grade; a library; an arts center; a farm; a dental clinic; and a sewing center, to teach a trade. At the time, the government had started pushing for closure of orphanages, preferring to place children in private homes, hopefully with relatives.
“For five years we have been fighting to keep our kids, and this past year the government reached us,” Mama Arlene said last month during a trip back to Pennsylvania, where she gave several public talks (including one at The Inquirer) about her extraordinary work.
As orphanages have emptied across Rwanda (just nine children now live at Urukundo), Brown has regrouped by expanding Urukundo’s school, adding classrooms through grade 6 to serve more of the surrounding impoverished community of Muhanga. Current enrollment is 875.
Pennsylvanians have had a big hand in that growth through Hope Made Real, a nonprofit based in Williamsport (and chaired by Brown’s son Jerry) that accepts donations. These days, Brown’s priority is raising $300,000 for more classrooms. Her dream is to one day build a secondary school, which is currently an educational option for only the fraction of Rwandans who can afford boarding school.
Urukundo employs nearly 90 local residents and has started to generate income through farming, the dental clinic, the school, and by renting out its facilities for weddings.
“Through love and a great education, she is raising the next generation of Rwandan leaders who will carry their country forward in new, exciting ways,” said daughter Patricia Brown, a hospice bereavement manager in Pittsburgh and one of Mama Arlene’s five children. (She also has 17 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren.) “Of course we miss her. But I now think of her more as an older sister who is off on her own adventure.”
Uwonkunda Divine is among the many who have benefited. She was 11 when Mama Arlene took her in. At 23, she is a university graduate, her schooling funded by donations to Hope Made Real (to which I have contributed). Divine aspires to attend flight school to become a pilot.
“Mama Arlene saved my life,” she said in an email from Kigali. “She gave me an incredible home, a purpose and an amazing future to look forward to. She is my hero!”