When Katie Robinson agreed in 2004 to lead a committee planning a new outreach project for Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community, she had no idea how much change that project would have effected in a mere three years.
“I had absolutely no idea. When I started it was so small, and I accepted the challenge of it. I was so excited to be the chairperson, but I had no idea the journey it would take me on,” Robinson said.
The roots of St. John’s Kenyan Outreach date back to early 2004, when Our Lady of the Lakes’ social-ministry committee approached Father John Gathenya, parochial vicar, and asked him to suggest a project they might undertake in his home diocese of Nakuru, Kenya. That March, the committee decided to take St. John’s Small Home under its wing.
Located in Father Gathenya’s hometown of Subukia, St. John’s Small Home is a residential home for needy, disabled children. The children are taken care of by volunteers from the nearby St. John Parish while they attend first through eighth grade at Our Lady of Victory Primary School, which is adjacent to the home and has a special-education unit. Bus transportation is not available, so disabled children who could not walk to school because of the distance or their disabilities would not otherwise be able to attend.
At that time, the home was in dire need of repair and renovation, and many necessities, such as a fire-escape door, had never been installed. The first goal of the new St. John’s Kenyan Outreach project was to renovate the home and help it meet the children’s needs, Robinson said. The project was launched in June 2004, and by the next month Father Gathenya was able to travel to the home, meet the children and deliver the project’s first batch of donations.
In December 2004, the committee began encouraging parishioners to sponsor individual residents of St. John’s Small Home, and in April 2005 Charles Gitau, head of planning and development for the Diocese of Nakuru, visited St. Januarius Church in Naples, one of Our Lady of the Lakes’ six parishes. At that point, 50 people had donated to the project and raised more than $13,000 for the home and its residents.
Gitau thanked parishioners for their generous support and asked them to continue supporting the children even after the renovations were completed. Most disabled students in Subukia and the surrounding areas do not continue their schooling past eighth grade because of limited funds and the limitations of their disabilities, so Gitau proposed building a vocational school near the home to allow older children to learn skills that would help them generate income.
Students at this vocational school would learn more about computers, electrical work, embroidery, tailoring, hair dressing, carpentry, joinery and leatherworking, Robinson said.
Parishioners seemed to embrace the idea, and immediately embarked on a quest to raise enough money to build the vocational school, she said. The Diocese of Nakuru provided 42 percent of the necessary funding for the school, and the members of St. John Parish in Subukia provided building materials and assistance as often as they were able, she said.
Ground was broken for the vocational school on Dec. 1, 2005, but the project’s progress was slowed by a severe drought in Kenya in early 2006 and a government-ordered ban on felling trees in Kenya late that year, Robinson said.
After many prayers to the intercession of Mary, patron saint of Our Lady of the Lakes, Robinson and the other committee members received word this past May that the roof and outside construction on the vocational school were finally complete.
“The roof was put on in May and it was blue,” Robinson recalled. “I thought, ‘Blue is Mary’s color, and May is Mary’s month.’ Some things aren’t coincidences.”
However, the outreach project is far from finished. Robinson and other committee members hope to raise enough money to purchase all the equipment necessary for the school and to fund all the finishing work. The walls still need to be plastered and painted, and ceilings, floors, electricity, indoor plumbing and a septic system still need to be installed, Robinson said.
Robinson visited each of the community’s six churches this July to launch St. John’s Kenyan Outreach’s annual summer appeal. Money raised through the appeal will support the above-mentioned work and also will be used to purchase such items as sewing machines, tape measures, hammers, chisels, screw drivers, aprons, thimbles, blow dryers and textbooks, she said.
St. John’s Kenyan Outreach has raised more than $90,000 through donors — both locally and in 10 other states — since it began in 2004, and Robinson said she expected to announce the results of this summer’s appeal at Masses the weekend of Sept. 15-16. The project has obviously had a tremendous impact on the lives of the Kenyan students and their families, but it also has promoted spiritual growth and unity among Our Lady of the Lakes parishioners, she noted.
“I think there’s a real joy to knowing they’re helping people who really need their help. I think the best way you can build community is to help people together, when you reach outside yourself,” Robinson said. “This is something going beyond thinking of yourself, but thinking of other people and what you can do for them. The barriers are just broken down.”
Our Lady of the Lakes as a whole, rather than one or two particular parishes, seems to have taken ownership of the project, and Father Robert Ring, pastor, has staunchly supported the program, she added.
Robinson said she believes the project’s success is largely due to its emphasis on prayer. Our Lady of the Lakes parishioners regularly pray for the school, the home and the students they sponsor, and the students and parishioners in Subukia pray for their friends in the Finger Lakes region.
“Every single morning the children pray for Our Lady of the Lakes. It’s such a beautiful bond. I think it’s stronger than a physical bond,” Robinson said. “Prayer is definitely the cornerstone of our outreach. It’s living proof of the words, ‘All things are possible with God.'”