RICHLAND -- About 200 kids sat motionless in Richland's Southside Church on Thursday for a special history class.
The T-shirt-clad man in the center of the room was telling stories he witnessed during one of the greatest tragedies of the past half-century.
Carl Wilkens was a missionary and relief worker in Rwanda during the 1990s, and one of the few foreigners who stayed in the tiny Central African country after ethnic tension exploded into genocide. He now is a public speaker, particularly in schools, to inspire people to stand up against racism and intolerance.
Wilkens, who lives in Spokane, talked to students from Delta High School and Home Link, the Richland School District's support system for families who home school.
Seventeen years ago this month -- on April 6, 1994 -- Wilkens, his wife and their three children heard a loud crash close to their house in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. They had lived there for four years.
The crash they heard was the president's plane bursting into flames after it had been shot down. Within minutes, the country that had been in a low-intensity civil war for three years plunged into chaos and genocide.
An estimated 800,000 people -- most of them Tutsis, an ethnic minority -- were killed in about three months.
Wilkens sent his family to nearby -- and peaceful -- Kenya. But he stayed, disobeying his church's orders and ignoring the example of just about every other relief worker in the country.
He knew the danger -- he and his family came close to being killed the night after the plane crash.
"The killers came to our gate," Wilkens told the students in Richland.
But Wilkens and his family were saved by the elderly women living next door.
"I don't think I'm being overly dramatic by saying that we could have died that night had those ladies not stood up for us," he said. "And this isn't some goofy movie, like Grandmas with Guns."
The kids chuckled.
"They came armed with stories," Wilkens said. "Stories are about relationships. Those ladies changed us in the minds of the killers -- they re-humanized us."
Within days, Wilkens' family was out of the country. He stayed amid the mayhem and is credited with saving hundreds of children during the genocide, by standing in the way of militias ready to slaughter even the youngest Tutsis.
"How do you get ordinary people to murder their neighbors?" he asked. "The more we learn about it, the more confused we get."
We tend to separate the participants in such events into good guys and bad guys, he said. But reality isn't that easy.
"The good and the bad -- it's right here," he said, pointing at his heart.
It's easy to let the bad win out, he said. We all have people we don't like, or think we're not supposed to like.
"We want to exclude those people from our lives," Wilkens said. "To me, that's the beginning of genocide."
He told the group that everyone can make a difference by not categorizing people as insiders or outsiders, for example.
Sharing stories prevents such thinking, he said, and encouraged the children to "learn one thing about someone else every week."
After Wilkens' presentation at Southside Church, he went to Delta High School. The kids there had been studying genocide in general, and Rwanda in particular, for weeks.
Their history teacher had incorporated lessons on intolerance and prejudice in the students' daily lives into the curriculum.
"If they can't connect it to what's going on in the world now, what's the point?" said David Blacketer, the teacher.
Meeting a witness to history further helped the kids connect textbook and real world.
"It's such a different feel coming from someone who was actually there," said tenth-grader Daniel Ramsey.
Kids were eager to hear more details about life in Africa outside of wartime.
Wilkens happily obliged, talking about homemade water-skis and games played without the benefit of electricity.
After class let out for lunch, a shy 16-year-old approached the former missionary.
"I wanted to show you a poem I wrote, inspired by learning about Rwanda," said Ammishddai Sandoval.
The boy haltingly recited the first few lines of his poem titled War Child. But he picked up confidence as he went along.
The poem's first-person narrator spoke of innocence, ending each stanza with the same desperate plea.
I have done nothing wrong.
The man who had seen unspeakable horrors stood silently for a moment.
"Wow -- thank you very much," Wilkens said.