Maryanne O’Hara spoke with us about her recent journey to Kenya and The Leo Project with Elevate Destinations.
Travel is a means to find meaningful connections—with unfamiliar cultures, the natural world, your heritage, and even your closest loved ones. At times, these connections are essential to help you heal and find mindfulness in a way that wasn’t possible from home.
For Maryanne O’Hara, her trip to Kenya to visit The Leo Project and experience the magnificence of this country was as life-changing as it was transformational.
The Leo Project was founded in honor of Maryanne’s daughter, Caitlin O’Hara, who passed away at the age of 33 after a long battle with cystic fibrosis. Before Caitlin’s passing, she confided in her closest friend, Jess Danforth, about the possibility of not surviving, and Jess promised to do something meaningful in remembrance of her name.
Maryanne O’Hara and her husband Nick journeyed to Kenya this past December to mark a milestone in their touching story and see the incredible work Jess and The Leo Project have accomplished. They also had the opportunity to contribute to the construction of the Caitlin O’Hara Community Health Clinic, which is due to be opened in June 2022.
What made you decide to take a journey to Kenya at this particular time?
2021 was a big year for us. In April, HarperCollins published Little Matches, my memoir about Caitlin. December marked the unbelievable 5th anniversary of her passing. To honor the date in a meaningful way, we decided to visit Kenya. It was the trip Caitlin had hoped to take after her lung transplant.
Were your Kenya travels different from how you imagined they would be? What most moved you during your travels?
I trusted that Kenya would be magnificent, but it managed to exceed my expectations. The vastness, the beauty of the conservancies –– the peace and tranquility. I felt myself to be in a permanent state of meditation the entire month I was there.
Everywhere, the Kenyans were welcoming and gracious. Two of our guides continue to WhatsApp me to stay in touch. I arranged for one of them to Zoom with a high school biology class here in Massachusetts.
All of our accommodations were comfortable, gorgeous, and respectful of the environment.
Please describe how you spent your time at The Leo Project.
We arrived at The Leo Project on December 20, the actual anniversary, and oh my goodness, the emotion. It was the first December 20 that my tears mixed with some joy. We met with students, observed classes, and saw firsthand the positive impact that Leo is having on the community.
I was the December speaker at The Leo Project Youth Club, which Jess founded to offer young adults a chance to talk openly about mental health issues. The attendees had read Little Matches and I talked about Caitlin and invisible illness and about finding joy and purpose and meaning in life, despite hardships.
My husband Nick is a design/construction professional, and he rolled up his sleeves and spent two weeks with the construction team, helping the health clinic project move forward.
Was visiting The Leo Project a transformative experience for you? How has it impacted your life now you’ve returned home?
I believe, as did Caitlin, that we are all humans on a single planet. I have always recoiled from boundaries, from the idea that we should “focus on our own” before helping others. In Kenya, I saw the power of a single American dollar and the great amount of good it can do.
At one point, I watched a mother lugging a jug of river water on her back as she trudged uphill, a little girl trailing behind her, and I was reminded that Caitlin, born with the genetic lung disease cystic fibrosis, would probably not have survived childhood without the brilliant Boston-based healthcare we took for granted as our right.
We left Kenya doubly committed to raising funds for The Leo Project, and we cannot wait to return.
The Caitlin O’Hara Community Health Clinic, named in honor of your daughter, is scheduled to open in June 2022. What difference will this health center make to the community in Nanyuki, Kenya, and how would Caitlin have felt about it?
It will make all the difference. It will save some lives and vastly improve countless more.
I’ll let a local Kenyan mother explain: “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.”
Caitlin hoped to get a Master of Public Health degree after her transplant. Now, in a way, she has. Somewhere, Caitlin is beaming.
Your book, Little Matches, is the story of your daughter’s illness and courage, as well as your enduring connection with her. Has this trip changed anything for you in your relationship with Caitlin?
Caitlin wrote: “I always pull back and picture myself in time and in space geographically. It makes me removed enough to ultimately feel that there is not much I can do to change the shifts of the world, but also inspired enough to think—what is my role in this lifetime?”
We experienced, in the most visceral and wonderful way that bereaved parents can, how our daughter’s life and her friend’s love have changed the course of so many other lives. The Kenya trip furthered my resolve to keep pushing forward to keep Caitlin’s legacy alive. Between The Leo Project, The Caitlin O’Hara Community Health Clinic, Little Matches, my public speaking, and my ongoing writing, there’s plenty to do. Caitlin is always close.
What would you like to tell anyone considering a trip to Kenya?
Please go. Kenya is as life-changing as everyone says. To be on that vast and gorgeous continent is to truly appreciate the brevity and magic of a human lifetime.
Thank you Maryanne O’Hara for speaking with us about your recent journey to Kenya and The Leo Project with Elevate Destinations.
Maryanne O’Hara is a Boston-based author. Little Matches: A Memoir of Finding Light in the Dark is now in paperback.
Elevate Destinations clients are welcome to visit The Leo Project during their travels to Kenya.