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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Class Notes

Dianne Ayon ’08

Following her heart to Africa

Dianne Ayon

For most, a tragedy such as the Rwandan genocide may elicit a sympathetic moment of sadness or a charitable donation. But for Dianne Ayon it drew an investment of heart and hands to help survivors of the brutal 1994 conflict.

Ayon, 22, has just returned from a four-month stint at Urugo St. Joseph, a Catholic orphanage and primary school in Kigali, Rwanda, that houses some of the countless children whose parents were murdered. For Ayon, it was a blessed opportunity to live out the tenets of her religious faith.

“My faith is what led me to come to Rwanda,” says Ayon, who grew up in a devout Catholic family. “I remember how we would pray together as a family. … It was this faith that my parents passed on to me, and the selfless giving of strangers and friends that inspired in me a love for the less fortunate.”

To make the biggest impact she could through volunteerism, Ayon requested a mission posting to a Third-World country severely affected by poverty when she signed up with Volunteers International for the Development, Education and Service of young people, or VIDES. The program is run by the Salesian Sisters, a Catholic religious order, and places volunteers in missions across the globe.

The Rwandan genocide began on April 6, 1994, and saw up to 800,000 Tutsis killed by Hutu militia over a hundred-day span. Most of the killing was done using clubs and machetes, with as many as 10,000 killed each day in the small central African nation, according to the United Human Rights Council.

The orphanage has 58 girls, ages 3 to 17, and the school has approximately 550 students. Ayon taught kindergarten each morning and spent the rest of the day helping other teachers with their classes and helping the girls learn English. But just as satisfying is the time she spent outside of class cooking, doing laundry, playing games and singing songs with the girls who live there.

Ayon contrasts her own happy childhood with the horrors endured by the girls in the orphanage. “These girls are so young and already carry such heavy burdens of pain and suffering,” she says. “Many have seen their parents killed before their eyes, some have mothers or fathers who have gone crazy after losing so many loved ones during the genocide.”

Most people who lived through the genocide find it “too painful … to speak about the horrible things they saw and experienced, but their suffering is evident,” Ayon says.

Ayon, who graduated from UTSA in 2008 with a B.S. in community health, says she was inspired to do volunteer work by her parents, Maria and Arturo Ayon. Her father, who is a professor of physics at UTSA, and her mother, who is director of a learning program at Colonial Hills Elementary School in San Antonio, showed her the importance of helping others through the sacrifices they made to provide for Ayon and her siblings, all of whom attended UTSA.

Now that she’s returned to San Antonio, Ayon is searching for a career path. She hopes to teach at a Catholic high school and return to college to work on a master’s degree, perhaps in a medical field or theology.

But whatever she does, Ayon says, the children of Rwanda and her experiences of a simple lifestyle there will always be in her heart.

“Everyone can give of themselves, as we have all been blessed with different gifts and talents,” Ayon says. “Mother Teresa used to speak of the importance of every single person. ‘What I can do, no one else can … and what you can do, no one else can.’ ”

For more information on Urugo St. Joseph, visit

- Jason B. Johnson

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