March 2014

Publisher's View: Anne Heyman

Steven J. Moss

On the morning of January 31, while showjumping in an equestrian competition, Anne Heyman, a skilled and experienced rider, was thrown from her mount and suffered severe head injuries. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors tried to save her. But within hours of her fall, Anne, just 52 years old, was dead. And, for many, many people, the universe shattered.

Anne and her husband, Seth, created an intimate partnership that produced three compassionate and poised children— Jenna, Jonathan, and Jason—an impossibly wide circle of true and loyal friends, and a kind of philanthropy that was rooted deep within their Jewish souls: generous, intelligent, and fundamentally kind. As Seth said at Anne’s memorial service, ever since they met when they were just teenagers, his goal was to make as much money as quickly as possible and hers was to give it away even faster. Their collaboration-competition succeeded. Seth made his family rich, while Anne made humankind even wealthier.

Anne’s good deeds are too many and varied to list, ranging from helping a poor and neglected family fix their broken refrigerator so they could have fresh food, to supporting college programs to teach tolerance. Her greatest achievement was creating a youth village in post-genocide Rwanda, modeled after a post-World War II kibbutz that emerged in Israel to care for Holocaust orphans. Anne willed the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village into existence, through courage, determination, and a fierce insistence that everyone mattered, especially the weakest among us.

Anne traveled to Rwanda, a country she’d never previously visited, found and purchased a collection of subsistence farming plots, and within a couple of years had built dormitories, a large dining hall, high school, small nature preserve, basketball courts, athletic fields, and a working farm. Anne sent a message out across the country: send me your most impoverished children. And they came: skinny, slump-shouldered, fearful, having lost parents and siblings to machetes, and later to AIDS or other hardships. Many had been living alone on the streets for much of their lives. They arrived so hungry that they piled food on their plates in the dining hall, lest it be their last meal for a long time. And these weren’t toddlers, or even adolescents. They were orphaned teenagers, an age group that many Americans believe is beyond redemption; a demographic that some people cross the street to avoid even in our own hometowns.

But redeemed they were, and, along the way, so were hundreds of volunteers and donors, who experienced the kind of healing that only occurs when it’s based on helping others. Anne made tikkun olam, the Jewish teaching to “heal the world,” a centerpiece of the Village. She believed that tikkun olam was reciprocal. The orphaned children were healed, and then encouraged to heal others. They build homes for the elderly, volunteer at schools, and fix broken computers. And in doing so, they heal themselves and those around them.

Just last year, virtually every one of the Village’s first 124 graduates passed the national exams, equivalent to our high school exit test. Many received college scholarships. At the commencement ceremony, Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, told the graduates that they—teenagers who only four years earlier were viewed as little better than street garbage— were the future of the country.

Over the past 30 years I’ve visited many development projects in Africa. I’d never before encountered such a fully realized dream, as well and quickly executed, as Agahozo-Shalom.

While Anne made what she did seem effortless, it wasn’t. Early on she had to overcome intense stage fright whenever she spoke in front of a group. Raising funds for the Village was a hand-to-hand, exhausting effort. But she was buoyed by her cherished children, her friends, supporters, and Seth. They were a couple locked in lifelong love, renewing their decades-old vows just last year during a vacation in Hawaii. Whenever she was praised for her good works, Anne would quickly deflect the conversation by pointing out that every significant achievement “takes a village.” That may be true, but for many of us Anne was the essential village chief.

When news of Anne’s death reached the Village, a collective wail of despair was raised, one echoed in homes from New York to San Francisco, Israel to her native South Africa. Many of the children felt that they’d lost their second mother, and that her passing meant they’d be quickly ejected back onto the streets, a swelling panic that was rapidly and firmly quelled by Agahozo’s staff and board.

Days before her death, Anne concluded a hard-negotiated agreement to develop an 8.5 megawatt solar field on Village property, an amount of generation equal to almost 10 percent of Rwandan’s electricity grid. As chair of the board’s business committee, I worked closely with Anne on developing the deal, an effort that, along with nurturing other enterprise initiatives, kept us in near daily contact for almost a year. The project was part of Anne’s determination to realize Agahozo’s full dream: to create revenue-generating enterprises that would also provide training and employment opportunities for the children and the country. When the solar field opens later this year, electricity will spill throughout Rwanda, powering lights, refrigerators, computers, lives, and businesses. Pure, catalyzing energy. Just like Anne.

A few months ago, Anne and my wife, Debbie, were planning our second annual couples’ vacation to New Orleans’ Jazzfest, which will never take place. In between their email chatter, which mixed brainstorming potential donors for the Village and what hotel to stay at, Anne threw out a P.S.:

“I am sure you know this, but your husband is a true gem. I cannot thank you enough for donating him to the Village—he is the best business partner I could ever have. We make the perfect negotiating team…I am totally the mean girl; he is completely the nice guy. And neither of us has to even act a part!”

The email is classic Anne: praise for me, while playfully teasing her own role. The truth is, in the years I worked with her, Anne was never mean. But she was always fierce. She fought without restraint to protect the Village’s present, and secure its better future. And whoever she engaged with received her unadulterated attention, creating a sense that she was always fully present, despite the many projects and people she interacted with daily. Hundreds of people attended Anne’s funeral, and hundreds more passed through the family’s Shiva house in honor of what Anne did, and who she was, to each and every one of them.

In Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s native tongue, “Agahozo” means the place where tears are dried. In Hebrew, “Shalom” means peace. With the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Anne dried the tears of children parched from poverty and violence, and helped to heal a country on its way to post-genocide peace. Those of us who knew Anne are left with our own tears, and a loss so profound that it will take a very long time to feel at peace.

Steven Moss serves on Agahozo-Shalom’s board, and chairs its business committee. Donations to the Village should be made to: www.asyv.org.

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