In December of 2016, Caitlin O’Hara died. She was thirty-three years old and my best friend. When I spoke at her 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. Because of my own three year struggle with breast cancer, it took time to put everything together but - despite delay - I am proud to introduce The Leo Project in honor of Caitlin E. O’Hara.
WHAT IS THE LEO PROJECT?
The Leo Project moves beyond the classroom and provides supportive services, creative outlets, and opportunities not traditionally available to vulnerable youth in Nanyuki, Kenya.
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, counseling 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.
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?
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 have raised funds to purchase an acre of land and build the 5,000 sq. ft. resource center. All additional funds raised via GoFundMe will be used for operating expenses, teacher's salaries, emergency relief efforts, etc. Soon, we will announce Phase Two of the organization.
HOW CAN I HELP?
Please donate in honor of Caitlin and in honor of the lives that will be changed through The Leo Project.
*The Leo Project is in the process of securing 501(c)(3) status and, in the meantime, the venerable Flying Kites is our fiscal sponsor. Donations to this campaign are fully tax-deductible. GoFundMe contributions are processed via PayPal Giving and, upon donation, you will receive a tax-deductible receipt.
Caitlin was never able to fulfill her post-transplant dream of throwing on a backpack, flying to Africa, and finally meeting Simba. Through The Leo Project her spirit will live. Like Caitlin, if you have dreamed of traveling to Kenya, please book a ticket. It will change your life.
From my heart with gratitude and appreciation, asante sana - Jess Danforth and The Leo Project team