In early August, South Tahoe High School seniors John Cefalu and Kris DiGrande went on a trip of a lifetime. They spent two weeks in a Kenyan orphanage delivering water filters, shoes and school supplies to youth in the region, but their work hasn't ended with their return to the basin.
"It was incredible. It was eye-opening. You got to see all the poverty and these kids don't really have anything, yet they're so happy," DiGrande said.
What started as a resume builder turned into a life-changing experience, Joby Cefalu said. His son, John, had looked into starting a global nonprofit to bring shoes and other supplies to African youth. When those plans fell through, Cefalu and DiGrande decided to instead pair with an existing organization whose mission paralleled what they were trying to achieve.
That organization was Think Kindness, a Reno-based nonprofit dedicated to inspiring measurable acts of kindness in schools and communities around the world. Founder Brian Williams, a University of Nevada, Reno, alumnus, wanted to make acts of kindness quantifiable and lasting.
"Our goal is to inspire measurable acts of kindness. We rally students across the country to use their privileges to help the world," Williams said.
He started by challenging elementary schools to document 5,000 acts of kindness in two weeks, and thus the 15 Days of Kindness challenge was born. The character development program challenges the student body and staff to document more than 5,000 random acts of kindness in two weeks, and document all their entries in journals.
Since that time, the organization has proposed the project to 78,290 elementary, middle and high school students and documented over 320,000 acts of kindness.
By next month, Cefalu and DiGrande hope to add to that number. They plan to incorporate schools throughout the basin in an awareness or fundraising event. One possible idea DiGrande outlined involved a five kilometer run down to the Tahoe shore.
Participants would fill containers with lake water before running back to the finish line, an act meant to symbolize the distance many of the orphanage's youth have to carry their drinking water as well as the bounty available in the basin. Runners' sponsorship would depend on the length they run and how much water they carry. The money raised would be used to buy more supplies for the Kenyan children.
The STHS seniors want to give back to the African community that left a strong impression upon them. They lived at the Tumaini Orphanage for almost two weeks, and during that time formed closed relationships with some of the 165 children and youth at the site, most of whom lost their parents to AIDS or come from families that can't support them.
"The kids were so open to strangers. They're so willing to love you and it's easy for you to love them," DiGrande said.
DiGrande and Cefalu spent the days with the youth, getting up early for 4 a.m. devotions and spending the rest of the time playing soccer and basketball, helping with the youth's chores, sharing meals and the occasional church ceremony. The overt emphasis on religion in the area surprised Cefalu.
"One thing that was so apparent was how much a part of everyone's life God is. Over here (in the U.S.), people are starting to not believe in things greater than themselves," Cefalu said.
When the time came to say goodbye at the end of the trip, he said he was surprised at how hard it was to leave.
"The day we left the orphanage was a really sad day. The kids get pretty attached. There was one little boy I was close with who ran up to the truck and burst into tears," he said.
For Cefalu, the Kenyan trip marked his first time out of the country. It was scary to see his son board a plane headed for a country about 6,000 miles away from the basin, Joby Cefalu said.
His family first came to South Lake Tahoe 65 years ago, and Joby, a self-described "small-time, small-minded mountain boy," said John's experience opened his eyes as well.
"From a parent's perspective, especially for myself since I've spent most of my life on the West Coast of the U.S., which is the best place to be in the world, seeing through my son's eyes has changed me. His experience was life changing for me and it broadened my scope of thought," he said.