The Leo Project will expose vulnerable children to opportunities not traditionally available in a Kenyan classroom: art, music, theater, coding -- the same creative and supportive services that enriched Caitlin's life during her thirty-three year struggle with cystic fibrosis.
In Kenya, the education system is based entirely on national exams. Anything not included in the standardized test curriculum is deemed unnecessary. Consequentially, children are not exposed to art, art therapy, music, performance, financial literacy, basic coding, or other schooling that enriches life and culture.
Our first initiative - a resource center - will put paintbrushes in hands, keyboards beneath fingers, and encourage confident voices. We will support creativity and self-expression and foster an environment where kids can be kids. We will employ a full-time Kenyan administrator and social workers who will help us move away from “Band-Aid” solutions by providing sustainable support.
For years, Kenya has called to my soul. In February of 2013, I left my job in finance and moved to Nanyuki, which is located three hours north of Nairobi, Kenya's capital city. I lived there for two years working with street kids and other vulnerable children.
Beryl Markham said, “Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all these things but one thing - it is never dull.”
Kenya - to me - embodies home. It’s the smell of the air and the illusion of timelessness. It’s the genuine joy and it’s the resilience. It’s the dusty roads and the sky and the people. Above all, it's the kids.
Caitlin longed to visit me there and meet the kids. To see, with her own eyes, the big cats, the elephants, and watch the equatorial sun rise up over Mt. Kenya. She dreamed of seeing the endless night sky, pinpricked with silvery stars. She was an adventurer at heart but she had cystic fibrosis, a genetic, progressive lung disease, and by her twenties, she could no longer stray too far from her medical team.
In February of 2014, her health plummeted. She was transferred by med-flight from Brigham & Women’s in Boston to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center where she was listed for a lung transplant. The surgery was filled with uncertainty and side effects, but if successful – like so many were – it would provide her with the opportunity to do many of the things that, before this time, had never been an option. She would finally be able to travel to Africa.
While she was in Pittsburgh waiting for the “call” that a donor had become available, the thousands of miles between us felt more expansive than ever and I was desperate to be in constant communication with her. I started sharing the stories of the kids that I was spending my time with. Simba was one of them. Although he had never celebrated a birthday, he was a doe-eyed, self-proclaimed ten year old (photo below). I connected the two and they sent handwritten letters back and forth. They shared an affinity for tiny winged creatures and their correspondence often included an illustration or two. On June 20th, 2014, Caitlin emailed and said, “Can’t WAIT for Simba’s letter to arrive. Thinking about him and all your little kids a lot. And you smiling at them. It hurts my heart.”
For many tragic reasons, Caitlin had to wait 2.5 years for her transplant and by then, her chances of success were low. She did not survive.
WHY THE LEO PROJECT?
When I spoke at Caitlin’s funeraI, I promised that I would do something extraordinary. I promised that I would make her proud and I promised to keep her light and her spirit alive.
Caitlin loved the arts and children, and she advocated for creativity. She viewed the arts as an integral part of education and indeed, public health. She was an art history major, partial to the Northern Renaissance and Early Christian periods. From Joni Mitchell and the Talking Heads to Bob Dylan, she appreciated good music more than anyone. She excelled at graphic design and taught herself basic coding. She painted and sketched and was a brilliant writer.
WHAT IS BEHIND THE NAME?
In Swahili, Leo means today. Being an astrological Leo was part of what defined Caitlin. She was a lion, as fiery and courageous as they come and she taught us, more than anyone, that all we have is today.
Additionally, Caitlin and I met as fifteen-year old students while attending St. Mark’s School and will forever be lions, the St. Mark’s mascot.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS?
We are raising $200k which covers the cost of land, design, and all construction. The 5,000 square foot resource center will include a large communal space, a multi-purpose amphitheater/stage which can be used for performances, as well as a place to study, a computer lab, four bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen, two offices, and an art supply room. The bedrooms will be for staff, skilled volunteers and emergency housing for children.
In late July 2018, I traveled to Nanyuki, Kenya to begin the process of securing land. We are starting with one acre and, if funding permits, will purchase a second. Architectural renderings of the structure have been finalized and we are working with the Kenyan-based construction team who - as of December 2018 - have broken ground. We are slated to team to complete construction in June of 2019 and open open doors shortly thereafter.