O’Neal eighth-grade student Kaleigh O’Leary experienced the summer of a lifetime. Traveling as the youngest without a parent, Kaleigh set out on an adventure to Nairobi, Kenya to volunteer for 10 days in Kibera, the second largest slum in the world.

Kaleigh embarked on the trip via a 501c3 organization called Crossing Thresholds. Its mission is to build schools and holistic learning environments for underserved children. This organization partners with two schools in Kibera: Facing the Future School (FAFU) – serving over 300 children by providing each with two meals a day, a music program as well as medical and therapeutic services and the Mobjap School – a school building project.

Kaleigh’s aunt has been actively involved with FAFU by way of Crossing Thresholds. The self-challenge and desire to help others had Kaleigh wanting to participate. Because she was the youngest ever to go without family, Kaleigh’s aunt and mother had to convince the director and his Board that she could handle the trip and especially the emotion of seeing such poverty.

“I left for Kenya knowing that I wouldn’t be able to change the world or erase poverty and despair, but I could help just a few children and bring smiles to their faces, then it would be all worthwhile,” says Kaleigh. She arrived in Kibera after 23 hours of travel. A place not recognized by the government but where 2.5 million people live, the conditions were deplorable. A typical home, with no plumbing or electricity, was about 10’x10’ made from cardboard, mud, and tin. With her, she brought a large duffle bag filled with O’Neal t-shirts and other clothes, flip flops, jump ropes, crayons and coloring books, puzzles, bandanas, and games. Many of the items were donated to the local thrift store.

Kaleigh spent time at both schools painting classrooms, doing crafts with the students and teaching the students songs. “I sang the song ‘Bright’ by Echosmith to some of the students and they liked it so much they wanted me to teach it to them,” exclaimed Kaleigh. She presently wears bracelets the students made for her and proudly shows them off. 

The people who worked with the students daily were revered by Kaleigh. “One of the teachers gave up his job as a school principal to stay in Kibera and work with the kids,” says Kaleigh. “There was a music team who taught the recorder to students and they were very inspiring to watch.”

One of her group members gave a student a “Smartie” – the wrapped candy of many stacked disks of sugary goodness. Kaleigh heard the student ask “May I share?”.  A simple candy made up of multiple pieces was prime and no matter the living conditions, people were still focused on sharing with one another. “They have so much hope and love and they really cared for one another,” says Kaleigh. “It was inspiring to be involved with it.”

“The kids were so welcoming with open arms and without hesitation,” reflects Kaleigh. “They are always smiling and happy, no matter how desolate their living conditions. We should be smiling too. We have so much to be thankful for and we shouldn’t take things for granted.”

Kaleigh had made relationships with some of the students and she emails them on special occasions like birthdays. Kaleigh did not leave Kenya without going on a two-day safari before her 26 –hour journey home. She has big plans to go back this summer to continue what she started.

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