In honour of my beautiful cousin, Caitlin O’Hara, her dear friend, Jessica, founded The Leo Project to keep her spirit and light alive.
The Leo Project moves beyond the classroom and provides supportive services, creative outlets, and opportunities not traditionally available to vulnerable youth in Nanyuki, Kenya.
Jessica has dedicated many years to working with street kids and other vulnerable children in Kenya. “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.”
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.
We are born to express ourselves, to explore part of our souls through creativity and learning. Creativity helps you see things differently and better deal with uncertainty. Studies show that creative people are better able to live with uncertainty because they can adapt their thinking to allow for the flow of the unknown.
Our first initiative - to create a resource centre - with the aim to 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.
About Caitlin and her passion for The Arts…
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.
Caitlin longed to visit Jess in Kenya and to 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” for a donor to become available. Jess kept Caitlin up-to-date with her time in Kenya and shared stories of the kids that she 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. Jess 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 Jess stating her excitement, “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, at age 33, her chances of success were low. She did not survive. Her light, energy and loving spirit lives on, guiding us all.
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 centre will include a large communal space, a multi-purpose amphitheatre/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, Jess travelled 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 doors shortly thereafter.