“You think all this is important but all that really matters is loving people and being kind.” – Caitlin Elizabeth O’Hara
While Caitlin was waiting for her lung transplant, her best friend got bad news of her own. In October of 2015, Jess Danforth was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Suddenly she found herself wrenched from her job in San Francisco, her frequent visits to her beloved Kenya, a land that had long called to her soul –– and thrust into the world of biopsies and PET scans and genetic testing and egg freezing.
Over the next few years, Jess would experience many complications. One mastectomy, then another. A chest wound that refused to heal. Thirteen surgeries. Ongoing chemo. And the death of her closest friend.
In the summer of 2018, Jess decided to build The Leo Project in Honor of Caitlin O’Hara, a resource center that would provide supportive services, creative outlets, and opportunities not traditionally available to vulnerable youth in Kenya.
“When I spoke at Caitlin’s funeral, 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,” Jess announced. She proceeded to raise funds and purchase an acre of land in Nanyuki, 4 hours north of Nairobi.
In January 2019, a Kenyan-based construction team broke ground and began constructing a 5,000-square foot resource center that includes a large communal space, a multi-purpose amphitheater/stage, a computer lab, four bedrooms for staff, volunteers, and emergency housing for children, bathrooms, a kitchen, two offices, and a supply room.
The Leo Project officially opened its doors in January 2020, but when Covid hit almost immediately, they had to pivot to help the community with more basic needs. As one local woman explained, “In our constituency, you will find pregnant mothers in labor who have to walk or hitch a motorbike for 20km to the nearest dispensary because there is no transport. Then she gets there and finds the one nurse has gone out. Even simple things like vaccinations are difficult to find, so you can have children who still cannot access vaccines for things like polio or tuberculosis. To some of these women, primary health care is just a mirage, something you talk about in big towns, but very far from their reality.” Jess saw how women and girls were spending an average of 6 hours, every day, collecting water from the river.
During the pandemic, The Leo Project partnered with Well Aware, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that implements life-saving water systems. In late 2021, they drilled a 110 meter borehole that now provides community with clean drinking water to help increase education rates and lower disease rates.
Jess stepped up her fundraising, purchased an acre adjacent to the resource center, collaborated with the community to figure out what might best work for them, and began construction of The Caitlin O’Hara Community Health Clinic. Construction is on schedule and the clinic will open its doors in July of 2022.
Promoting educational empowerment through three of The Leo Project’s tenets – mental health, digital literacy, and reproductive and sexual health services – is the impetus behind yet another project: The Leo Project’s Youth Hub. This project supports the professional development of young adults in Nanyuki town. Designed by a female architect in Kenya, the physical structure is almost complete and will open soon.
Caitlin would be so very proud of Jess. Jess was recently accepted to Harvard’s Master of Public Health program – but she could probably do a lot of teaching herself. Did I mention that she must report to her San Franciscan oncology team, in person, every twelve weeks?
But that is the essence of The Leo Project, which is about love and life and friendship and finding what speaks to your soul and pursuing it. It is about honoring a beloved friend, and about bettering the life of even one person, if you can. The Leo Project is about every participant becoming a more purposeful human.
Learn more about The Leo Project and how to help at theleoproject.org and read more about Jess and Caitlin in the 9LivesNotes archives. You can also read this interview – with pictures! – about our recent trip to Kenya to see the project for ourselves, here you go: