When Elijohn Kaindu agreed to this interview, I was cautiously optimistic. Would he cancel, or worse, be bored and unengaged during our meeting? But once I met him, at Embrace Church on the north side of Lexington, all of those concerns were put to rest. I hesitate to describe him as charismatic, respectful, humble, a leader — even though he is all that and more — because I would rather you come to that conclusion on your own.
First, you have to understand that Elijohn is an unassuming, normal kid, just like any other kid in America. He is active with church, loves sports, favors history (stuff like wars and medieval times), and thinks school should start at 10 a.m. because getting up early is a challenge. He's been the captain of the wrestling team for four years, co-captain of the soccer team, an elite athlete in multiple sports — track and field, football and boxing (OK, maybe he's not that normal).
But once you meet Elijohn you realize just how special he is, and not just because of his athletic ability. His family fled the violence of Congo for bluegrass Kentucky when he was 11. Even in the haven of Lexington, his struggles with a new language and culture often landed him in fights. He's also had to work since eighth grade to help support his family, while juggling both studies and sports.
Extreme adversity has fostered maturity, inner strength and courage. A senior at Bryan Station High School, Elijohn wants to be remembered as a helpful person, not for his athletic prowess. He's most proud of his high GPA certificates, not for scoring points on a field. He's not ashamed to tell you that his family was on food stamps, that it helped them in times of need. He's a hardheaded kid who easily admits his faults, but has learned to channel his anger and aggression through sports and "impulse control", a simple think-before-action technique that his mentor Laura Gallaher taught him. He now uses words, not fists, when he sees or hears a wrong. He's become the popular jock that we've always wished would stand up for the little guy.
When Gallaher prodded Elijohn to share the story of Jimmy, he couldn't recall what he had done that was special so Laura finished the story for him. Several years ago Elijohn met Jimmy, a neighborhood kid with severe learning disabilities and Tourette Syndrome, through Gallaher's Common Good program. Jimmy lacked social skills and was prone to spewing inappropriate words that got him into trouble with kids and adults. No one wanted to be friends with him. One day Elijohn saw Jimmy eating alone in the school cafeteria and decided to sit with him — the big man on campus sitting with the social outcast. Gallaher recalled how much Jimmy, who's been out of school due to his worsening condition, was beaming with pride and joy that day as he shared what happened. Elijohn unknowingly impacted Jimmy's life that day; he did it because it was the right thing to do.
In a city and state with rapidly changing demographics spurred by immigration, Elijohn represents not just the youth and future of this community, but more importantly the bridge to a more diverse, colorful landscape with people and cultures that most of us don't understand. He agreed to do this interview as a way to change people's view on immigrants. I think he accomplishes that and so much more.
Elijohn's story highlights the wonderfully diverse youth in our community. Support our youth as they show off their talents and performance skills the evening of Dec. 7 at the Spotlight on Youth event at the Lyric Theatre.
John Kim is manager of Saint Joseph Health System's Violence Prevention Initiative. Email him at JohnKim@CatholicHealth.net