A Home for Wisdom: Why She Left Her Pittsburgh Life for Kenya
Pittsburgher Kate Fletcher grew up as an orphan. Now, she’s helping orphaned or abandoned girls in Kenya find their way.
In Kenya, the girls at Hekima Place simply call Kate Fletcher “mum.”
The founder has become a mother to the girls, most of whom were orphaned or abandoned, in the home-like environment she’s created for them. It’s a role Fletcher doesn’t take lightly — she was an orphan herself.
Fletcher spent part of her childhood in a Catholic orphanage run by the Sisters of the Divine Redeemer in Philadelphia. At age 13, she moved to Pittsburgh to attend Divine Redeemer Academy, and at 17 she became a nun herself. She entered secular life to care for her dying mother in 1980.
In her 50s, she met and married Leonard Fletcher, and they spent 16 years together serving others through various missions in the United States until his death in 2001. After he died, Fletcher knew she was called to continue to serve others.
Struck by the stories of African children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic, she decided to go to Kenya. There, she opened the faith-based Hekima Place (hekima means wisdom in Swahili) for 10 girls in a rented building.
“She completely left her life in Pittsburgh and gave it all to move to Kenya and work with these girls,” says Hekima Place Director of Development Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp.
Today, Hekima Place has its own residential campus near Nairobi with 90 orphaned or vulnerable girls and gives them a home, an education and a future. The girls live about 10 to a house, where they call one another sister, with “house mums.” They’re provided with nutritious meals, clothing, healthcare, counseling, access to education and individual attention.
Soon, they’ll have their own school; the kindergarten to 9th grade Hekima Hills Learning Centre is under construction with plans to open in 2020. The girls at Hekima Place currently attend local schools, where the focus is on rote memorization (as opposed to critical thinking), classrooms are overcrowded and corporal punishment is common. The new school will also be open to children in the community.
When Fletcher moved to Kenya, she became aware of the inequality that faces girls there; an estimated 30 percent of girls are illiterate (as opposed to 14 percent of boys), and a UN study revealed that 32 percent of Kenyan girls experience sexual violence before age 18.
“We support them until they graduate high school then into vocational or technical school or college,” Lackovich-Van Gorp says. “And we do that because so many children’s homes stop caring for the girls when they graduate, and that’s cruel. We’re very intentional about this support until they graduate and are leading independent lives.”
Lackovich-Van Gorp, who visited Hekima Place in September for the first time as an official staff member (she joined the organization in May), says that when she visited she met a former Hekima Place resident who now works full time at a beauty parlor. Another former resident just graduated from pharmacy school.
“Even with [their] limitations, we do have success stories,” says Lackovich-Van Gorp.
Fundraising and donations pay for all of Hekima Place’s operations. When Fletcher first went to Kenya, she told members of her church, St. Thomas More in Bethel Park, what she planned to do; she told them if they would like to help, she’d welcome it. St. Thomas More and St. Louise de Marillac in Upper St. Clair are still supporting Hekima Place today.
Fundraising events for Hekima Place are held throughout the year in Pittsburgh: a summer Tennisthon, A Taste of Africa in the spring and an annual Christmas concert (set this year for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at St. Thomas More). Another event this year will be a fundraiser/80th birthday party for Fletcher on Nov. 17 at the Sheraton Pittsburgh Hotel at Station Square.
Lackovich-Van Gorp says the group depends on volunteers in Pittsburgh to do administrative work, represent the organization at community outreach programs, sponsor girls individually through a direct connection program or travel to Kenya to volunteer in person.
“College groups go, families go, individuals go,” Lackovich-Van Gorp says. “If they have skills, we use them: people have built playhouses, teachers go and do tutoring and work on homework with the girls … whatever skills and interests you bring to Hekima Place, we can find a way to use them.
“I’ve worked for a long time … with girls globally with all sorts of organizations all around the world, and this one is so different because it’s so heartfelt. It’s just led by these people in Pittsburgh who want to make a difference in the lives of these girls, led by Kate. And I mean, how many of us say we want to change the world, we all do, but for this woman to go and do that? It’s beautiful.”