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Humanitarian's speech inspires students to help

Carl Wilkens, an American who saw the Rwandan genocide first-hand, speaks at Huntington Beach High School.

March 30, 2011|By Mona Shadia, mona.shadia@latimes.com
  • Carl Wilkens shakes hands with Jake Stangeland, 14, during an event put on by Huntington Beach High School's Operation Save Darfur Club on Monday.
Carl Wilkens shakes hands with Jake Stangeland, 14, during… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

When Courtney Liss heard a humanitarian with first-hand experience of the Rwandan genocide was visiting her school to speak to students, she planned on going, but knew the subject would be depressing.

By the end of it, the 16-year-old left feeling a sense of hope and promise.

"He was inspiring," she said, adding that it was clear to her from the speech that helping others doesn't mean traveling abroad, but could simply mean making a difference in your own community.

"His stories about the people of Rwanda show humility and people appreciating what they have," Courtney said.

Carl Wilkens was the only American who chose to stay in Rwanda during the 1994 mass murder of the Tutsi ethnic group by the Hutu, who were more powerful. He worked his way through the streets of Rwanda to bring food, water and medicine to orphans.

"People needed help; now was the time," he told the students on March 21 of his decision to stay behind. "I couldn't hear myself say, 'I'll pray for you, but I got this passport and I'm leaving.'"

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Wilkens, the founder of World Outside My Shoes, an educational nonprofit, was invited by Huntington Beach High School's Operation Save Darfur Club. Its president, Adam Joe, worked hard on getting Wilkens to the school, said advisor Beth Theriault.

The club was established four years ago to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur. The club raises funds for Huntington Beach High's sister school, the Obama School, in the Darfur region, Theriault said.

While telling the stories of desperation, murder and injustice, Wilkens couldn't keep his tears from falling.

"The tears still come, some days more than others. It sort of makes you a little uncomfortable, but so what? It's not about me, not about a little bit of discomfort. It's about people like this," he said, pointing to a picture from his visits. "If it's hard to tell and hard to listen to, imagine how hard it is to live."

While Wilkens wanted to bring a sense of awareness to the students of what is going on around the world, he also wanted to make sure they first find their own passions.

He wanted them to first go to school and learn to implement those passions, whether they want to be a teacher or a lawyer, then use that to help others.

It's what Courtney plans on doing. She aspires to be a lawyer one day and use her degree to help bring justice to the world.

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