It’s been a long journey for Daniel Trust — even if he is just 28 years old.
Born Daniel Ndamwizeye in Gisenyi, Rwanda, as a 5-year-old he witnessed the murders of his parents and two sisters during the genocide that took 800,000 lives midyear of 1994. Eventually he escaped to Zambia before moving to Bridgeport in 2005.
Today he sits atop The Daniel Foundation, a nonprofit that invests in and supports students from low-income communities with their educational and career needs and honors teachers “who are making a difference in the lives of their students and communities in which they teach.” Along the way he adopted the user-friendly name Daniel Trust; his birth name, Ndamwizeye, means “I trust him” in Kinyarwanda.
“One of my biggest dreams growing up was coming to the United States,” he said from his Bridgeport office. “It was not easy getting here, but I was fortunate to have a sister who helped arrange for me to come to Connecticut.”
Philanthropy has always been one of his cornerstones, he said. “Giving back was something I’d wanted to do since I was very young. It was one of my dreams to get involved with orphanages around the world.”
Attending the city’s Bassick High School, he began working after hours at Bridgeport’s International Institute of Connecticut, which assists refugees and immigrants resolve legal, economic, linguistic and social barriers to become self-sufficient, integrated and contributing members of the community. There he “swept outside, sorted mail, took out the trash — anything that needed being done,” he said.
From there he worked as a cashier at Eddie Bauer and Old Navy while earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Southern Connecticut State University. As a freshman, he started the D-Trust Apparel clothing line, centered on T-shirts with anti-homophobia messages; 10 percent of the proceeds went to supporting children he was mentoring.
Upon graduation he landed at TD Bank, where his growing reputation as a motivational speaker eventually led to the 2014 establishment of The Daniel Trust Foundation.
“Growing it hasn’t been the easiest thing to do,” he laughed. “I didn’t have the resources or the backup that was necessary, really, but I’m a very persistent and determined person. I kept giving speeches and talking about my vision and what I wanted to do. People started buying into what I was offering.”
Through his motivational speeches at high schools, universities, corporations and conferences around the world, “stray people started to make one-time donations, and I was able to talk some of them and others into making monthly donations. Now we’re getting strangers to donate — people find us on the internet.”
One high point for the fledgling foundation occurred in December 2015 when “a small New York City financial company” — he declined to identify it — gave $30,000. “That opened up a lot of doors.”
The Daniel Foundation today has “a great partnership” with Bridgeport schools, he said. “We work with the principals and teachers to identify students who are maybe a little disadvantaged but show potential, who are then referred to us.”
The nonprofit operates a high school mentoring program, in which enrolled students spend 15 weeks in their junior year focusing on SAT prep and 15 weeks in their senior year focusing 0n college readiness, career preparation and financial literacy; a college mentoring program, where graduates of the high school program receive a $2,000 scholarship; and a teacher recognition program, where student-nominated teachers receive an achievement award and $250.
The firm’s fourth annual Daniel Trust Awards, recognizing 12 students and 12 teachers, will take place June 2 at the Holiday Inn at 1070 Main St. in Bridgeport. Trust said he expects about 200 people to attend the event, which will feature a keynote address by 2016 National Teacher of the Year and 2016 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes of John F. Kennedy High School in Waterbury.