When Kurt Kannemeyer sees a mountain, be it literal or symbolic, he sees an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
And that perspective has, as they say, made all the difference.
It’s what brought the South African native first to America and then to St. Christopher’s in Dobbs Ferry, where Kannemeyer serves as the director of development for the residential treatment center for special education students.
And it’s also the driving force behind his latest endeavor, an August attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to raise funds for and awareness of the work of St. Christopher’s.
In fundraising materials for the trip, Kannemeyer employs a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I am a slow walker, but I never walk backwards.”
He writes that climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is “feasible but not easy.” But he adds that, “Many of our students are facing their own ‘mountains’ on a daily basis, and for them, life has never been easy. The greatest joy for me in climbing is being a role model and showing our kids that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. No mountain is unreachable, no dream is impossible.”
And that right there reaches to the heart of Kannemeyer’s own story. During a recent morning visit at his office on the St. Christopher’s campus overlooking the Hudson River, where he has worked for the past nine years, Kannemeyer shares what’s so special about his proposed trip.
It’s all about setting goals and working to make them happen, to believe in yourself and help others feel the same way.
Raised in South Africa during the apartheid era (Kannemeyer clearly remembers as a young boy asking his father why one section of the beach they were visiting was designated for “whites only”), he wanted to make his mark.
He says his parents and three sisters were always supportive of his dreams, whether they were to be a teacher, a pilot or a lawyer. He says American television shows, from “Murder, She Wrote” to “L.A. Law,” had a great effect on his dreams.
Sometimes a bit too much, he shares with a laugh as he tells of typical exchanges he’d have with his mother.
“She would say ‘Kurt, take out the trash.’ I would say ‘Objection, your honor,’ and she would say ‘Overruled.’”
Still, he was determined to become a lawyer, thinking to himself, “If you put your guts and gusto, you can accomplish that.”
Kannemeyer was also captivated by airplanes and knew one day he’d be on one to America. That eventually came true, when he traveled to the U.S. for a camp counselor job in 2001 and returned the following year for another position with the same organization.
Before his third year, he was gathering other young people to try for similar positions and met up with a representative from St. Christopher’s, who shortly after offered him a job running its camp programs.
He accepted the job and over the years accepted an invitation to stay on, transitioning from one post to another, including one that drew on his legal background and another within its school system.
It was about five years ago when he suggested something dramatic for the students he had come to love – a humanitarian trip to South Africa. After all, many “traditional” schools often take students abroad, so why shouldn’t St. Christopher’s students have that same chance?
“They’re not special needs because of any abnormality,” he says of the students who have emotional, behavioral and learning disabilities. “We must afford them the same opportunities.”
Plenty of convincing, fundraising and determination ended up with a groundbreaking journey with a group of students to his native land. The main goal was to work with an AIDS orphanage in Port Elizabeth, near where Kannemeyer was from. The trip, which gained media attention, was a moving experience, both for the students and Kannemeyer himself.
“It was life-changing, more so for me than them,” he says. He was constantly amazed by their determination, their reactions and how the trip opened up the world for them.
The effect of the journey typifies the goals of Kannemeyer’s day-to-day work at St. Christopher’s. A recent annual gala was a smashing success, but he is not one to take a pause. His role in the development of St. Christopher’s is a priority.
“It entails so much more than having an event or two,” he says. “Most of my work is trying to advocate for them, trying to get resources that will better their life.”
And that’s what this climb is all about.
Kannemeyer, who’s been hitting the gym in preparation and has a trip to Colorado planned for July to help his body adjust to higher elevations, will be following the Rongai Route with a group of three friends, in August.
Just like when he proposed the trip to South Africa, there have been skeptics, he says.
But he’s not one to listen.
“Once again what they don’t know about Kurt is once Kurt decides something, it’s very hard to change his mind,” he says.
The climb itself, a seven-day journey that begins Aug. 18, will ideally end at the summit, some 19,500 feet above sea level.
Kannemeyer hopes to raise $50,000 for St. Christopher’s, with funding going to programming for the students in transitional cottages to ensure they receive the necessary life skills to become independent once they graduate.
The climb will also fuel Kannemeyer’s vision for students to return to South Africa to continue the work they began there in 2009. New projects there would include funding a perpetual garden and renovating bathrooms for children living with HIV/AIDS.
That’s what keeps him motivated – and motivating. He says even if, for some reason, he cannot reach the summit, he feels the students will still be inspired by his effort.
“I’m going to get to the top, but even if I don’t, that to me is my success. That no matter, knowing the obstacle… I was willing to try.”
It’s all reflective, he says, of the spirit that has kept St. Christopher’s going since the late 19th century.
“Today, I’m carrying that legacy forth,” he says. “All the staff here, we carry that legacy forth.”
Throughout the trip, Kannemeyer hopes to be able to broadcast updates, blog and keep in touch with his followers, especially those at St. Christopher’s who know someone was willing to take a very real risk for them.
“For many of our kids, the sad reality for them is before they came to us they never had someone who believed in them.”
And come August, the students of St. Christopher’s will be able to think about the man they call “Mr. Kurt” continents away, making a climb for their future.
To learn more about St. Christopher’s, visit sc1881.org.