TAMPA — Francine Mugeni's smile drew people toward her from all corners of the Tampa Yacht & Country Club on Friday night.
She conversed brightly with sponsors of the Akilah Institute for Women about how, despite losing both parents and six siblings in the Rwandan genocide, she strives toward a better future.
"I have to move forward," said the 22-year-old orphan from Kigali, Rwanda. "It was very hard for me to continue my studies and continue my education. Everything is possible."
Mugeni and Irene Ingabire, 23, were two graduates of Akilah Institute invited as honored guests at the third annual Metropolitan Safari to raise money for their school.
The school's founder, Tampa native Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes, said she hopes to pull in $150,000 — one-fifth of the annual operating budget — from Tampa Bay area donors.
"She chose a path of service because she believes in something bigger than herself," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said as he presented a proclamation designating Friday Akilah Institute for Women of Rwanda Day.
Dearborn-Hughes and her husband, Dave Hughes, 28, started the school, which trains women in business entrepreneurship and the hospitality industry, after becoming deeply moved by the struggles of Rwandan women to restore their country after the massacre of an estimated 800,000 members of a minority ethnic group in 1994.
"Once you learn about that, it is hard to imagine doing anything different," said Dearborn-Hughes, 28.
The institute graduated its first class in August, with all 39 women being placed in jobs.
Both Mugeni and Ingabire were in that class and will begin their leadership training with Marriott International in the Middle East after a monthlong trip to the United States.
It was the first trip to America for both women.
Ingabire got to water ski during her first trip to a beach.
"It was one of those things you see in a movie and wonder 'How are these people doing this?' " she said. "I fell, but I was glad to try it."
Mugeni hopes to visit an American nightclub.
"I love to dance," she laughed.
Both women said they hope that the support for Akilah Institute grows
"People in Rwanda really need education, and students of Akilah are willing to study to work for our future and build our country," Ingabire said.