Farmington resident has created 13 libraries in Rwanda
Halfway around the world, students who have never heard of Eric Harms are reading books in large part because of the former Farmington resident. They are studying law or dentistry or music in libraries set up in his memory.
Over the past two years, 80,000 books, more than 50 computers and several musical keyboards have made their way to Rwanda in the name of Harms, who died from depression in 2009 during his freshman year at Colombia University. For Eric’s mother, Kim, the project has become a way to memorialize her son, a way to help a country that has become dear to her heart and a way to channel her own grief into something productive.
Harms’ work in Rwanda started in 2011, when a friend who was on the board of a group called Books for Africa suggested she set up a library in her son’s name. Eric Harms was an avid reader who liked to collect books that libraries were discarding. The project made sense, and Harms went to work.
Using some of Eric’s own books as well as money set aside for his college tuition, Harms started building the library. She got help from fundraisers at St. Thomas Academy, where Eric attended high school, and from Visitation. There was a fundraiser at Colombia as well, and Harms worked with Thompson-Reuters to assemble a complete law library to donate to a Rwandan law school.
The more she worked, the more the project grew. To date, Harms has dedicated 13 libraries in her son’s name. There are two law libraries, one in a dental school and others in primary, secondary and high schools. Each features a plaque bearing Eric’s name.
Harms has enjoyed assembling the libraries and keeping her son’s name alive. But she has taken a great deal from the Rwandan people as well. The country is still recovering from a 1994 genocide led by the then-ruling Hutu tribe that caused the death of nearly 1 million members of the Tutsi tribe. When she visited last year, Harms saw members of both tribes working to make the country better. She talked with people who had survived the genocide, and who had lost loved ones.
“It’s certainly been therapeutic for me,” said Harms, who traveled to Rwanda last year and plans to return in March. “We learned a lot about finding joy and getting through grief.”
Now hooked on the country and on doing projects to help “the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life,” Harms has turned helping Rwanda into a retirement project. She donated some of her son’s music books to a school in Rwanda, and when they asked for keyboards so they could play along as they sang, she found a way to provide them.
A dentist for many years in Farmington, Harms used her connections in the dental world to create other opportunities. Thanks to introductions she made, students from UCLA’s dental school now give lectures via video conference to students at a dental school in Rwanda.
There is a need for everything Harms can provide. There is a shortage of printed material in Africa. Books for Africa estimates that every book provided in the continent is read more than 400 times.
Harms is helping others, but she is also helping herself. She plans to keep going as long as she sees a project that needs her attention.
“All that energy that I would have spent in the sadness and the sorrow and all the things that go with grief — to be able to redirect it to something that’s positive, I think that helps me be enthusiastic about it,” she said. “We have a lot to be thankful for, but we’re very, very grateful that our son is remembered.”