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Eric Freeman makes it his business to help kids in Rwanda

SUBMITTED PHOTO: PENELOPE FAIN - Laura Alterman finds some cheerful photo subjects during her visit to Rwanda with the mission team from Freeman Motors. Laura is the daughter of Penelope Fain.

Eric Freeman is past the point where he has to defend Freeman Motor Company for being a used-car business.

Because of the success of his company, Freeman can even laugh about the queasy notion people used to have about sellers of previously owned vehicles. The gag line “Would you buy a used car from this man?” was a sure laugh-getter.

However, the Lake Oswego man is concerned about far more than giving the used-car business an image makeover. Freeman is more concerned about humankind’s rating than his sales rating, and he has proved this by working with Africa New Life to revolutionize the lives of hungry, uneducated children in the nation of Rwanda in Africa.

What’s more, Freeman has brought along the employees of Freeman Motor Company on the journey with him. That bond was strengthened when a 19-person contingent — including employees, wives, husbands and kids — traveled to Rwanda in June to experience firsthand a beautiful land in desperate need.

“The struggle has been how to connect the employees on our floor every day with what we believe as a management team,” Freeman said. “Now, they’ve been able to see, smell and touch Rwanda. I cannot say enough what this trip did for that connection.”

SUBMITTED PHOTO: LAURA ALTERMAN - Eric Freeman and his family were overjoyed about making a contribution to Rwandan children. The Freemans are, clockwise from the top left, Eric, Jenny, Katie, Kaden and Kyle.

While Freeman has been busy for 10 years building a business that literally gleams, he has worked just as hard increasing the social impact of his company; as he says “living for something bigger than ourselves.”

He started in Portland and Lake Oswego, which is located just a few miles down the road from Freeman Motors, becoming deeply involved in the Lake Oswego School District and the Chamber of Commerce.

“Out of every car we sell, we donate 10 percent of the price to the school district,” Freeman said.

But Freeman’s personal commitment to community began to grow when he became acquainted with the organization Africa New Life and was stirred by their story about the children of Rwanda.

“In Rwanda, a kid has to pay to be in school,” Freeman said. “They know their future relies on education. When a child gets educated, he can turn around and pull his family out of poverty. It’s not like feeding a child food for a day. When children come to school without being fed, they don’t concentrate.”

First on the list of people Freeman convinced to join his mission to Rwanda was Penelope Fain, his company’s community relations director, who happens to be an incredible organizer. It was Fain who set up Freeman’s two monumental meal packing events, in which the business was closed down for one day and 1,000 volunteers showed up to pack 240,000 meals on each occasion.

SUBMITTED PHOTO: LAURA ALTERMAN - Penelope Fain shed a few tears but had lots of smiles on her mission trip to Rwanda. Fain literally gave the shirt off her back to this girl, who said, God bless you.

“There were so many volunteers who showed up that we had to turn a lot of people away,” Fain said. “Our tagline was ‘In two hours, one person can pack 365 meals, which is enough for a child to have one meal a day for a year.

“On our food packing day there would be 80-year-old volunteers standing next to 3-year-olds packing meals. The little ones would be standing on boxes. Those too young to pack would draw art on the boxes. Everyone was sharing American love with Rwanda.”

Packing all of those meals was amazing and fun, but Fain didn’t realize the impact of her effort until she went on the trip to Rwanda and visited families in the mud huts where they made their home. If these huts had one lightbulb, the people were lucky.

“These were households with no income,” Fain said. “I would look at spaces where food would have been stored, and they would be empty.” She tears up at the memory.

Still, Freeman, Fain and the others in their group could see that their efforts were helping Rwandan people start to achieve a turnaround. The story of one of those people changing their lives is one Fain will particularly remember. The connection was made because the African girl had the same name as Fain’s daughter, Laura.

“It was a young girl who had been kicked out of her house,” Fain said. “But she was well spoken and well dressed, and she would impress people with her tenacity. She received the opportunity to attend an elite school, but she turned it down. She said, ‘I can’t take all of that money. Think of how many people that money would help.’”

Laura’s tenacity paid off when she was able to find a foster home and a promise of support from Africa New Life. Such stories filled Fain with inspiration, and she is already organizing another big meal packing event at Freeman Motors in December.

“Going to Rwanda was so much more than I expected,” Fain said. “I am still processing every aspect of it.”

“It was so fun to see both my own children and my employees have this experience,” Freeman said. “I recommend this trip to anyone willing to step out of their comfort zone and discover a new world.”

For more about Freeman Motor Company and its community service, go to freemanmotor.com. For more about Africa New Life, go to africanewlife.org.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

SUBMITTED PHOTO: LAURA ALTERMAN - Michael Zoerner of Freeman Motors made a lot of friends with Rwandan children during the June mission trip.