Emory University sophomore volleyball player Katie Kane has combined her passion and leadership to help empower others in the U.S. and Nicaragua.
She began volunteering in high school by working on a hunger project, which inspired her to become an intern this past summer with Feeding Children Everywhere, a non-profit organization based in Florida that seeks to provide healthy meals to those in need.
On June 12, 2017, the one-year anniversary of the deadly shooting at Pulse nightclub that took the lives of 49 people, the organization created 490,000 meals. “There were 10,000 meals per life lost,” Kane added. “We donated to the home state or home country of each of the victims, including Venezuela and Mexico. Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer declared it a day of service with service projects all over the city to turn a tragedy into a positive community event. A couple of the survivors spoke and volunteered on our assembly line.”
Photo: One shift of volunteers at the Orlando headquarters of Feeding Children Everywhere
The entire project was sponsored by corporations (including United Airlines, Chick-fil-A, and Loew’s Hotels) and donations. In addition to other national and international events, Feeding Children Everywhere holds one community hunger project per month at the Orlando headquarters and serves four meals for every $1 donated.
“The one thing that struck me the most was the mission of empowering people for a hunger-free world,” Kane remarked. “It empowers the people receiving the food, but also the volunteers who package the meals. As one person, you can’t end world hunger, but you can package 10,000 meals in one day. The organization can package as many as 1,000,000 meals per day. I definitely plan to volunteer on Atlanta projects during the school year.”
Photo: Katie Kane and children from the Orlando community decorating food boxes
Getting to Atlanta was an easy choice for Kane. “Going through the college search and recruiting, I visited a lot of schools, but I wanted a high-quality academic institution with a super competitive volleyball program,” she said. “Being from Florida, I like the southern vibe, warmth, and hospitality of Emory and Atlanta. I fell in love with (head coach) Jenny (McDowell) and (former assistant coach) Joe (Goodson). They were so focused on me as a player and as a person with my passions and interests.”
“When I first recruited her, I hadn’t even see her play and I knew I wanted her on my team,” McDowell stated. “She is the epitome of a servant leader.”
Kane’s older brother Andrew plays baseball at nearby Mercer University. “It worked out great that we get to see each other play,” she said. Originally entering college planning to be a biology major on a pre-med track, Kane is now pursuing a double major in business and religion at Emory. “I loved the liberal arts education my first year. I am really excited to pursue my goals and earn a career in some sort of social enterprise and non-profit work.”
“We had talked about an international trip, but I told my players they had to get behind it,” McDowell commented. “Katie came into my office and said, ‘Let’s do this and I’ll lead it.’ She literally started investigating and gathering information. We decided as a team that we didn’t want a vacation. We wanted to make an impact. We looked at Nicaragua and knew it was for us. We wanted to go somewhere where we could dive into the culture and serve the people.”
The team that traveled to Nicaragua included Kane and 13 other returning players, McDowell, assistant coaches Brianna Jones and Kyle Landrigan. They began the trip in the country’s capital city of Managua before moving on to San Juan del Sur, where they performed the majority of their community service work. At Escuela Adelante (http://www.escuelaadelantenicaragua.org/), a bilingual school, they helped teach English to, and played board games with, four- and five-year-old children who were already partially bi- or even tri-lingual.
Photo: Kane at Escuela Adelante
“You wouldn’t see a school in this condition in the worst part of our country, but when it started pouring rain, the kids began singing and were so joyful in spite of the conditions,” McDowell relayed. “One of the students looked at one of our players and told her, ‘We don’t have any money, these are all the clothes I have, and we live in a very little hut, but I have joy in my heart.’ We were all in tears when we heard the story. Our players were so touched by it all.”
From there, the group visited a co-op, Manos Unidas (http://sanjuandelsur.org/manos-unidas/), for those with special needs and mental disabilities. “This experience was most popular among the team, and my personal favorite,” Kane stated. “They are people who would be forgotten in the culture if not for a program like this. It was a very special experience to see the happiness they had. In U.S. nomenclature, they possessed very little in terms of wealth, yet they had pure joy.”
Photo: Kane and teammates at Manos Unidas
“We learned that a large percentage of men in Nicaragua leave the family when their wives give birth to a disabled child,” McDowell said. “These mothers of special needs children shared with us how much it meant to them to see these strong, powerful women on our team and see what they could become. That really hit our players.”
A man named Tio Antonio set up a hammock store that provided jobs to at-risk youth and deaf and mute youth “Tio spoke about how we were making an impact in such a short time, serving as an inspiration as a strong group of women,” Kane recalled.
One of the big surprises on the trip came when the team hosted a volleyball clinic in Granada, one of the oldest colonial settlements in Central America. “We were expecting to run the clinic for girls, but we were excited to see a lot of women (in their 30s and 40s) also came,” Kane remarked. “It was challenging because of the language barrier, but we worked through it together. We had a great time and they were super receptive to what we were teaching. For many of them, it was their first time ever playing in a gym. Even the national team often played on an outdoor cement court.”
Photo: Volleyball clinic hosted by Emory
“Talking about our players working the clinic gives me the chills,” McDowell added. “These middle-aged women were looking at our players and thinking they could achieve the same things.”
The clinic was, like an Emory match, high energy with a lot of enthusiasm. “We showed them a different way to play than they were accustomed to,” Kane said. “We played the national team three times and they were very stoic. We would have these extremely long rallies, which they would win, and then they would not show any emotion.”
Photo: Emory with Nicaragua youth team
The following day, they returned to the preschool, but this time to teach English to older students at a camp since school was not in session. “We all split up and took different subjects, including sportsmanship, music, and creative writing,” Kane said. “It was such a meaningful experience to see the team in a different environment. A lot of our players had not been in a developing nation before. To be able to engage as one team with a common goal of serving people was a great way to start out the season.”
The group did have time for exploring with a trip to a volcano, ziplining, and surfing lessons, and experienced much of the culture first-hand. The team piled in the back of pick-up trucks to drive through the jungles to get to other villages. “The trip was a perfect mix of volleyball, training, and working with these amazing people in one of the most beautiful countries I have been to.”
One of the most powerful moments of the trip was a nightly reflection on the events of the day. Prior to the trip to Nicaragua, Kane traveled to the Dominican Republic for a week to work on construction and teach English. “We would gather together for a reflection every night and it made an impact on me,” she stated. “I wanted to do that with the team. We talked about how we can bring this trip’s lessons not just to our team, but also to our school and the Atlanta community. We came up with our team motto for the season, which is ‘joyful pursuit.’ We want to have joy in all we pursue from the matches to our relationships with our teammates and the community.”
“It was one of the greatest weeks of my life and I am confident the players feel the same way,” McDowell added. “It changed every one of their lives. This is such a selfless group of women. They are very competitive and work very hard, but they are also intent on making a difference in the lives of others.”
“It was awesome to see this trip come to fruition after eight months of planning and fundraising,” Kane concluded. “It was worth every second of the planning. It will have lasting effects on the team and the individuals forever. We got to learn from the people of Nicaragua, who are impoverished materially, but are so generous and loving in spite of that.”