"You think all this is important, but all that really matters is loving people and being kind" - Caitlin O'Hara, SM 2001 (pictured here)
Two SM alumnae—Jessica Danforth '02 and Alyssa Viano Baker '01—have begun "The Leo Project," an effort to provide supportive services, creative outlets, and opportunities not traditionally available to vulnerable youth in Nanyuki, Kenya. The Leo Project is a memorial tribute to the late Caitlin O'Hara '01, who passed away in December 2016 after a long battle with cystic fibrosis.
"When I spoke at Caitlin's funeraI," said Danforth, "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." Thus, the Leo Project.
Kenya is familiar ground for Danforth. From 2013 to 2015, she lived in Nanyuki, some three hours north of Nairobi, working with street kids and other vulnerable children. O'Hara had been consistently supportive of Danforth's efforts. She exchanged letters with some of the children Danforth worked with, and she had plans to travel to Africa to join her friend. But her health intervened. She never made it to Kenya.
"The Leo Project will move beyond the classroom," declares Danforth. "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 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 worker who will help us move away from "Band-Aid" solutions by providing sustainable support."
The emphasis on the arts was inspired by Caitlin O'Hara. "She loved the arts and children," explains Danforth, "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."
The name "The Leo Project" has more than one origin. In Swahili, Leo means today. "Being an astrological Leo was part of what defined Caitlin," said Danforth. "She was a lion, as fiery and courageous as they come and she taught us, more than anyone, that all we have is today." And, of course, there's the St. Mark's connection. "We are St. Markers," says Danforth. "We will forever be Lions."
"This is a wonderful project," agrees Alyssa Viano Baker '01, who has been supporting Danforth in her efforts. "I am honored to be a part of it."
The goal is to raise $200,000 which covers the cost of land (approximately two acres), design, and all construction. The 2,500 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, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, two offices, and an art supply room. This summer, Danforth is in Kenya to secure land and, shortly thereafter, construction will begin. The goal is to open doors in 2019.
To learn more about and support The Leo Project, click here.
Caitlin was never able to fulfill her post-transplant dream of throwing on a backpack, flying to Africa, and finally meeting the children. Through The Leo Project her spirit will live.