"Once you get going with it, it captures you."
That’s what Katie Robinson told the Catholic Courier in October 2004. She was talking about St. John’s Kenyan Outreach, a new project that had recently been taken on by Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community in the Finger Lakes. The Catholic community had raised more than $10,000 in less than six months for St. John’s Small Home, a residence for disabled children in Subukia, which is located within the Catholic Diocese of Nakuru, Kenya. Subukia is the hometown of Father John Gathenya, who was parochial vicar for Our Lady of the Lakes at the time and now is pastor of Our Lady of the Snow Parish in Weedsport.
In the nearly five years since Robinson spoke those words, St. John’s Kenyan Outreach has continued to capture the hearts of Our Lady of the Lakes parishioners and others living in the area. So far approximately $130,000 has been sent to aid needy and disabled children in Subukia, Robinson said.
The first donations were used to renovate the small home, which is located near Our Lady of Victory School in Subukia. Disabled children live in this home because they are unable to walk to school from their families’ homes and there are no buses to transport them to school, Robinson said. Many of the students also are sponsored by parishioners back in New York, who send contributions to cover the cost of their living and schooling expenses.
In April 2005 Charles Gitau, coordinator of planning and development for the Nakuru Diocese, paid a visit to St. Januarius, which is part of Our Lady of the Lakes. He thanked parishioners for their generosity and encouraged them to continue raising money for the small home’s children. After graduating from the eighth grade at Our Lady of Victory, he said, many of the disabled children don’t have enough money to continue their schooling or enough skills to enter the workforce. He said these children would benefit greatly from a vocational school on the site, where they could learn to cook and sew and could take basic courses in computer, electrical and mechanical work.
By September 2005 parishioners had raised $21,401 for the vocational school, exceeding by far their original goal of $5,000, Robinson said. The Diocese of Nakuru also provided more than 40 percent of the necessary funds, and ground was broken for the vocational school in December 2005. After that, however, the project slowed due to severe drought, civil unrest and a government ban on felling trees.
Supporters of the vocational school persevered, however.
"It would have been so easy for (the project) to die, and it just kept going," Robinson said. "I really think it’s prayer. I think the people in the cluster kept the faith that … good was going to come from this, but I think the main thing was prayer."
Robinson and Father Gitau traveled to Subukia for the school’s grand opening June 14. Walking into the vocational school for the first time was an amazing experience, Robinson said.
"That was just so overwhelming. If it wasn’t for the people’s support this wouldn’t even be here. It would just be a field," she said.
The curriculum at the vocational school will be tailored to each individual student to ensure that every student who graduates from the program will be well-trained and ready to find a job, said Robinson, who mingled with the students during her trip to Kenya. She’d seen many pictures of the students before, but when she met them in person she was somewhat surprised by the extent of their disabilities. Nonetheless, the children were warm, joyful and loving, she noted.
"The children were very happy and extremely grateful, but also secure," she recalled. "It was really that feeling that they were taken care of, they were loved. When we started, isn’t that what we wanted, for them to be like normal children?"
These children aren’t the only ones who’ve benefitted from St. John’s Kenyan Outreach, however. Our Lady of the Lakes’ six faith communities have been clustered for several years, and their pastoral plan calls for them to eventually join together to form one new parish. This process won’t be without pain, Robinson said — as evidenced by the June 28 closing of St. Andrew Church in Dundee, she noted — but projects such as St. John’s Kenyan Outreach give her hope.
"It’s a very hard thing, the clustering and having to close churches, but I really feel like this is something that’s helped bring us together. The commitment has really been throughout all the churches," she said.