Breaking Down Barriers to Build a Community

Breaking Barriers

Breaking Barriers


The connection we were able to build with the women was one of the most significant accomplishments made within the project. Trauma as serious as the women in the Safe House have experienced can make it extremely difficult to form trusting relationships. To

Building Relationships

Building Relationships

safe house residents, outsiders can cause stress, especially when cultural barriers are also present. Fortunately, the women and children at Sizakuyenza were almost immediately welcoming toward us. Both planned and unplanned activities were well received, allowing us to create an emotional bond with the women and children, and collaborate with ease.  Our relationship, built upon sharing, trust and common goals, grew throughout the duration of the project. It was a major factor in being able to achieve many complex tasks in such a short time period.

Developing a System for Collaborative Design

Before making major changes in the Safe House yard, we pursued crucial input from the staff and residents. Our interactive model was a novel process which yielded tailored outcomes. It helped us overcome the language barrier while simultaneously engaging the women’s critical thinking and creativity.  Getting the women involved in the planning process allowed us to customize the project outcomes directly to their needs. Seeing their plans become realities created a sense of ownership for the women, which will be beneficial to the long-term upkeep of the facilities.

Renewing the Fountain to Create a Relaxing Space

A few years prior to our team’s arrival, the Safe House had a functional water feature that served as a relaxing space for the recovering women. However, the children punctured the tarp basin, causing the water to drain and the pump motor to fail. We completely reconstructed the feature by installing a durable fiberglass basin and high-quality submersible water pump. The renewed feature has the ability to last for years with minimal maintenance and is much more damage-resistant. Once completed, the fountain’s soft trickling water is both audibly and visually relaxing. By coupling some of the women’s favorite flowers with a few ground-covering plants, we were able to create a serene, fresh, and peaceful perimeter to the fountain’s edge. By appealing to the women’s eyes, ears, and nose, the water feature and the surrounding area is a sanctuary that can provide multiple aspects of therapy to each resident.

A Fresh Coat of Hope: Painting the Safe House

Repainting the interior of the Safe House was one of the most time consuming, but rewarding tasks. We allowed the women to collectively choose the color of each room. The choices they made led to a bright, multi-colored interior. Painting alongside the women was an effective way of invoking visible change and inspiring them to take initiative and work on their own. On multiple occasions, the women painted entire rooms on their own, saying that they “loved the new colors…now [the Safe House] looks like hope”. As the first major upgrading activity, this task gave us an opportunity to connect with the women on a working level, and allowed them to realize their ability to overcome their trauma and accomplish great things. Upon completion, the finished paint created a fun and welcoming environment in the Safe House.

Designating Yard Space for a Variety of Needs

A fence dividing the women and children’s sections of the yard was an outcome we had not initially considered. The interactive design process allowed the women to bring the idea of the fence to our attention, and we were able implement a fence that met all of their criteria. We produced an extremely sturdy structure that also allowed great sight lines for the women to watch their children on the other side. The fence designates separate areas for the women and children, allowing them to feel that they have their own space. It also protects the delicate features, such as the garden and fountain, from the children while they play.

Nurturing Growth: Producing a Functional Garden

Relocating the garden was essential in restoring the residents’ interest in gardening. The previous garden was a large, unmanageable space, located next to the playground. To prevent children from playing in the garden and to facilitate the future plans for a crèche, we relocated it to the women’s side of the yard and downsized the total area. We created incentive for the women to value the garden by choosing specific plants based on the vegetables and herbs the women use most. Immense help from all of the women led to establishing a new area of five garden beds, protected from the children by the fence, that they were all interested in maintaining. The skillset they can gain from gardening may carry over in their lives after leaving the Safe House, as a few women have indicated interest in planting their own gardens when they graduate.

 Advancing Childhood Development

The upgrade of the playground and designs for a crèche were tangible upgrades specifically aimed at assisting the children of the Safe House. In the yard initially, the children did not have a designated area for recreation or learning conducive to their recovery and safety. The playground upgrades included repairing the existing structure and constructing a tire ladder, two balance beams and five stepping poles. We observed the children play in order to decide their specific needs and gauge the range of physical capabilities. Each element of the playground is fitted to the childhood development of the age groups the Safe House regularly accommodates. The younger children can navigate through the simple obstacles, and the older ones are prompted to make decisions to challenge themselves on the larger structures. The repaired and new playground elements can help keep the children safely engaged while their mothers are busy, providing for a great deal of personal growth.




Sizakuyenza has had the idea of building an on-site crèche for several years, but none of the staff has been able to initiate the design process. The designs we created for the crèche are a starting place where Sizakuyenza can advance the process of implementing this goal. Having a learning space within the Safe House yard can combat the danger of sending the children to crèche outside of the safety of Sizakuyenza, where they run the risk of being kidnapped by abusers on the commute. We were able to erode the sense of stagnation surrounding the idea of crèche planning and construction. Gershwin, our liaison, was inspired by our designs to realize the dream of building a crèche may be possible earlier than expected. He sent preliminary plans to Sizakuyenza’s governing organization, CESVI, and began considering options for the installment of a permanent crèche in the Safe House yard.

An Adjustable Solution: Alleviating Crowded Laundry Lines

One of the most exciting accomplishments for the team was the creation of innovative dryer lines. The women expressed their need for more sturdy drying lines, as several had been bent or broken. It was evident that the full length of the remaining lines were not utilized, as the ends were too high to reach. The women also expressed that the children should not be able to damage lines. All of these concerns lead us to a unique, yet simple design. The new lines are adjustable, with the line being fixed securely to one post, and looped around a hook on the other. Each of the five new lines can be untied from the hooks and made slack. When pulled taut, they are far out of reach of children. When lines are slacked, clothing can be secured to the entirety of the line, as it is all within reach. The structure takes weather exposure into consideration, being partially covered by an awning for when it rains, and partially exposed to the sun. The new design also aesthetically fits into the landscape of the yard.

Our Biggest Accomplishment: Connecting, Inspiring, Empowering

The most important accomplishment of the project was the change experienced throughout the Safe House environment and the Sizakuyenza organization as a whole, as we tried to inspire and positively impact each person we came in contact with. By including the residents and staff in our planning and asking them to assist us in upgrading the facilities at the Safe House, we were able to adjust the overall attitude to a more positive, optimistic view in the realization that each person can make an impact.There were on-going projects to look forward to throughout the process, and by working in integrated teams of both residents and students we were able to build strong relationships. We hope they will initiate and complete their own projects in the future. The women were able to carry themselves with pride for all they had accomplished. The atmosphere in Sizakuyenza was lighter, happier, and far more productive than it was when we came in on the first day. As Mama Pilisani told us one day, “It’s like you have given us wind, and now we can fly”.