On Tuesday, October 27, St. Mark's alumna Jess Danforth '02 was the speaker for morning chapel. She shared with the school community the story of her best friend, fellow St. Marker Caitlin O'Hara '01 (pictured at left), who died at the age of 33 of complications from cystic fibrosis. Danforth then introduced the work she was doing in East Africa as a memorial to her friend: the Leo Project.
The Leo Project is a nonprofit program providing educational and medical resources in Kenya. It began with the construction of a 5,500-square-foot community center in Nanyuki, located three hours north of Nairobi at the base of Mt. Kenya. Opened in January 2020, the community resource center (pictured at right) offers art and art therapy, music, computers, digital literacy and coding, tutoring, counseling, mindfulness, yoga, and a library, initially to the 2,000 students from two local primary schools. In response to community feedback, the organization quickly expanded and now offers literacy and computer classes to adults as well.
"Because of COVID," said Danforth, "we have temporarily pivoted to help provide emergency aid. We have distributed masks and food supplies, set-up handwashing stations, designed an e-learning portal so that as many of our students as possible could continue learning from home."
Recently, the Leo Project received 501c3 status and its next initiative is to build a community health clinic focused on care for women and children. Renderings have just been finalized, and Danforth is hoping to break ground for the clinic's construction before year's end.
"I believe that all humans are entitled to education and health care," she said," and our goal is to use this model as a pilot: a space to incubate ideas, see what resonates with the community, what provides tangible and sustainable help. The goal is to grow quickly and replicate this model around Kenya."
Also participating in the Tuesday St. Mark's chapel service were Alyssa Viano Baker '01, Caitlin O'Hara's St. Mark's classmate and longtime supporte of the Leo Project; St. Mark's trustee Tarah Donoghue Breed '00; and Maryanne O'Hara, Caitlin's mother, who read from her soon-to-be-released book, Little Matches, which tells Caitlin's story and reflects on the topics of grief and loss.
The Leo Project is so named for three reasons. First, in Kiswahili, the primary language spoken in much of East Africa,"leo" means today. Second, Leo was the astrological sign of Caitlin O'Hara, in whose memory the Leo Project was established. Finally, of course, there is the lion: mascot of St. Mark's School, where Jessica's friendship with Caitlin began. It is hoped that over the next few years, St. Mark's and St. Markers might become more involved with the Leo Project, another example of the School's commitment to leading lives of leadership and service.