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The Rotary Club of White Plains is Club 5043, District 7230, Zone 32, Region USCB, Federal tax ID 13-6111471.

Mailing address: P.O. Box 1712, White Plains NY 10602.

Our "Foundation of the Rotary Club of White Plains" is tax exempt, New York State #219346, tax ID 13-6165380.

Website created August 2001.

The Rotary Club of White Plains was chartered October 1, 1919, charter number 540.

Kurt Kannemeyer

From South African ghetto, a leader soars at service agency

By Colleen Michele Jones, August 3, 2012

Kurt Kannemeyer is one of those people to whom visions appear almost like billboards in the sky. They continue to pop up in his mind, these dreams and goals, doggedly demanding his attention.

Some might call Kannemeyer’s brand of enthusiasm simply motivation.

Either way, the 34-year-old South African native has a way of making those around him just as excited about his ideas. It’s one of the qualities that executives at St. Christopher’s saw in Kannemeyer when they named him director of development for the Dobbs Ferry children’s service agency three years ago.

In June, he was named one of the “Rising Stars” on the Business Council of Westchester’s annual “Forty under Forty” list, young professionals so recognized for achievement and leadership in their respective fields. In his role with the organization, Kannemeyer coordinates all fundraising, underwriting, and volunteerism opportunities to help the nonprofit better assist the almost 400 disabled and challenged young people it serves, including about 100 in seven residential cottages on St. Chris’ Broadway campus.

It is a mission he doesn’t take lightly, especially given his humble beginnings.

“Maybe one day when I go back [to South Africa] people can say, ‘There was a man who came back here and said it’s possible — you can aspire to greatness,’” Kannemeyer said in a recent interview.

How Kanneymeyer came to occupy an office in Ingleside, the Gothic castle-like building that serves as St. Christopher’s administrative headquarters, is a story of self-styled ambition — and also of how a little bit of luck can go a long way.

Kannemeyer grew up in a ghetto outside Port Elizabeth in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the apartheid regime that segregated blacks and whites, rich and the poor, was only beginning to be dismantled. His mother, who worked in a camera shop, and his father, a construction man, raised Kannemeyer and his three sisters in a tiny two-bedroom cottage where Kannemeyer remembers workers showing up one day to repossess the family’s furniture.

He grew up watching American TV shows like “L.A. Law” and “Matlock” and thought a real measure of success would be to become an attorney.

Despite what Kannemeyer characterizes as an educational system severely lacking in resources and teacher morale, he studied hard and was accepted to the University of Port Elizabeth. His parents scraped by in order to pay tuition for him to train for a law degree.

Before he could begin practicing in his homeland, however, the trajectory of Kannemeyer’s life was changed by a chance meeting with a former St. Christopher’s executive at a job fair in South Africa in 2003. Kannemeyer, who had traveled previously on work visas to the United States and held jobs from a summer camp counselor in Ohio to a bakery worker in Wisconsin, jumped at the chance to return to America — “the land of opportunity, the land where dreams are endless.”

Impressed by his background and enthusiasm, Luis Medina, then the executive director of St. Christopher’s, offered Kannemeyer a job as director of camp services on the spot. The assignment was part of a six-month program geared toward introducing residents to outdoor adventures. Once secured on a three-year extended visa, which St. Chris sponsored, Kannemeyer was steadily promoted through the organization’s ranks after administrators saw his leadership ability and array of other skills.

About four years ago, Kannemeyer began talking to Bob Maher, CEO and executive director for St. Christopher’s Inc., about bringing a handful of young people from the campus to South Africa.

Calling it the Student Fellows program, the idea was to pick a select group of students from St. Chris who might become ambassadors of hope to other students across the globe in a kind of sister school arrangement.

At first, Maher and others had doubts. In addition to the financial challenge of funding such an expedition, Kannemeyer recalled, “They said, ‘Our kids won’t make it — they’re too emotionally fragile, they’ll break down so far away from home.’”

But almost single-handedly, Kannemeyer raised all $30,000 necessary to pay for the trip, including chaperones, through private donations, corporate gifts, and also the generosity of staff members of St. Christopher’s.

Administrators had students who were interested in going on the trip go through an application process, including writing an essay and interviewing with staff. In the end, five participants were chosen and the two-week journey was planned for the spring of 2009. Kannemeyer, who helps financially support his mother and father (who suffered a stroke eight years ago) has been back to his native country multiple times over the last decade he has been in the States and has established relationships with a number of service organizations in South Africa.

In their travels, the group spent time in Kannemeyer’s hometown of Port Elizabeth, as well as Johannesburg and Cape Town, visiting schools, villages with squatter communities, and even an orphanage for children of AIDS victims.

To say the trip was an eye-opener is an understatement. Most of the kids hadn’t ever traveled out of state, never mind abroad, so it was an education in the culture of another country, especially one still reeling from the strife of apartheid. The opportunity also allowed Kannemeyer’s young charges to see that, despite personal obstacles, their circumstances were not nearly as dire as those of many children they encountered in South Africa.

They saw people in extreme poverty, most going barefoot and with little to put on the table for their families. St. Chris’ kids came bearing donations of food and other items, in some cases giving clothes off their own backs to young people they met.

“They [the South Africans] were overwhelmed by their American counterparts coming to their country to help,” said Kannemeyer.

For those alumni who went, it was a transformative experience.

Kariel Paul, a 2009 graduate of St. Chris, said, “It was so humbling. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. You look at what you have and then you go over there and see how fortunate you are. … it really motivated me so much.”

Paul, who struggled with dyslexia in school and “could have gone down the wrong path,” is now 22 and a teaching assistant within the Greenburgh-North Castle School District of St. Christopher’s, helping other students with learning disabilities and other issues.

Kannemeyer, meanwhile, continues to create more challenges for himself. In February, he plans to hike Mount Kilimanjaro — the highest peak in Africa — to raise money through pledges for a return trip with students to South Africa, hopefully next spring. To prepare, he has already begun endurance training.

Paul said, “I don’t put anything past him.”

This time around, Kannemeyer hopes to help modernize the same schools the group traveled to three years ago — for example, retrofitting bathrooms and installing a freezer to keep perishables — and also distribute more food and supplies. As part of a longer-term initiative, Kannemeyer hopes to recruit trained medics to begin a free health clinic in the Port Elizabeth area as well as a safe house for teens who run away to escape dangerous conditions at home.

Kannemeyer plans to publicize his efforts to the many people and organizations he knows through his contacts with local politicians, regional chambers of commerce, Leadership Westchester, and the number of boards and advisory councils on which he sits.

Maher, for one, said, “I would help Kurt sponsor [another trip] in a minute. The kids who went the last time really used it as a springboard and still speak of it as one of the greatest experiences of their lives.”

Maher said he was not surprised at Kannemeyer’s recognition as one of the County’s “Forty under Forty.”

“I think he loves our kids and really wants to see them do their best to succeed,” said Maher.

One day when he was a boy, Kannemeyer saw a big plane come streaking across the sky, high above his little house. It seemed a kind of beacon – one that might lift him up and out of the day-to-day existence he knew. A young Kannemeyer continued to stare up at the aircraft in amazement, trying to understand how it got its thrust.

“I said to myself, ‘One day, I’m gonna fly one of those.’”

If anyone can do it, it’s surely Kannemeyer.

“You’ve got to dream big to make things happen,” said Kannemeyer. “If you don’t make it all the way, at least you’ll be among the clouds, at least you’ll still be among the stars.”

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