How Helping Others Can Bring Us Hope

By Kate Flanagan

Photo by Kate Flanagan

Photo by Kate Flanagan

This is the second part of Kate’s story. You can read Part 1 here in: DOING GOOD TOGETHER

As part of my trip to Kenya with Many Hopes, I was told to prepare an activity to do with the girls in the orphanage. That part was easy, or so I thought. My gift to the orphans was to teach them about Shakespeare. Surely every African child dreamed of learning Shakespeare.

 I arrived in Kenya as puffy from jet lag as Violet Beauregarde post Chocolate Factory and ready to give a world-class lecture. The girls gently took my bags and led me, loopy as I felt, through a mile-long stretch of grass with wild animals, hills, and huts situated between their home, the orphanage, and their favorite spot to relax, a beach right out of Shakespeare’s wildest prose.

 Coming out of the grove onto the beach was nothing short of magical. There was music, a restaurant, a bar, and a cool breeze. 

 It was time to go to work. I sat the girls in a circle and cast them in roles. I explained iambic pentameter. I gave them a synopsis of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies. I recited the history of Shakespeare’s life with as big a smile as I could. Then we started reciting lines written hundreds of years ago by a dead poet. 

 The girls were good at it. They humored me, on their beach, as I shouted lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It turned out they already knew who Shakespeare was, and they were more interested in hearing about my role as a zombie in a monster movie. We settled on braiding hair and playing a hand-clapping game.

 NOT WHAT I EXPECTED

 I looked around. Nothing was what I had expected. The girls were so happy. They were loving, kind, and gracious to each other. They respected their house moms. They were patient. The kids at this African orphanage had much better manners than some of the children I'd babysat on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There was no entitlement, only generosity, and gratitude. What did they need me for? What could I offer to them?

 True horror struck. I backed out of the circle, and walked down the beach toward a stand of trees and the path back to the Many Hopes dormitory. Maybe if I walked quickly and kept my head down they wouldn’t notice me slipping away. 

 They did notice and sent a small and fearless eight-year-old after me. She called out, “Auntie, what’s wrong? Are you worried?”

 “Not at all,” I said, lying to a child.

 “Ahhh, don’t be worried, Auntie Kate!” She took my arm to lead me back to the rest of the kids. “You just have to be free! Be free!”

It sounded like something my mother and my counselor had paid this child to say. This small human led me back towards the circle. I looked awkwardly at the girls. They stopped their clapping game and gazed up at me.

DISCOVERING MY AUTHENTIC SELF

No one gets away with being fake to kids. They won’t stand for it. The girls wanted to get to know who I was and to connect with me. I had to let myself be seen. I had to go back before the spin classes, the Soho zip code, and the blowouts for auditions to the eight-year-old butterball of a kid who belted out musical theatre songs and organized family talent shows. Who wanted to hang out with her? Eight-year-old orphans in Kenya, it turned out.

As soon as we got back to the home, I decided to go off my diet. I carb-loaded with two servings of chipati. And then we had a talent show. The girls who wanted to dance, twirled. The girls who wanted to sing belted it out. For the next ten days, we talked and laughed, made music videos and ate a lot. And by the end, the butterball kid who had been hiding behind highlights and drama school for a twenty-year stretch was back.

For accepting me for who I really am as easily as they showed me who they are, I owe a great debt to the girls at Many Hopes. They did me good by reminding me of what unconditional love looks like. They needed nothing from me. The only good I can do in return is to tell others about them, and hope enough people want to empower them with an opportunity to continue in their schooling, go on to college, and return as lawyers, doctors, and teachers — opportunities they didn’t have before Many Hopes gave them a chance.

As for me, in following orders from my eight-year-old friend, I’m free. 

Kate is a native New Yorker who has lived in London, Dublin and Houston. She is an actor, director, and teaching artist. She lives in Hudson Yards and still likes Annie. Support Many Hopes at http://www.manyhopes.org/