By DALE MOSS Local columnist
Kathy Bixler had not heard the latest.
She did not realize that Leonard Kwitonda made the dean’s list both semesters his freshman year. Kwitonda’s double major was news as well, like is his plan to buy a house at a ripe old 20.
Kwitonda stopped surprising Bixler, though, the minute she stopped reading an essay he wrote her. Bixler has waded through more than many essays from students seeking college scholarships Bixler gives in her husband’s memory. Kwitonda’s two-page plea was, well, unique.
“Everything he had gone through and he just kept going,” Bixler said, remembering Kwitonda’s story like she had read it yesterday, not last year. “He never let it get him down.
“I was just amazed.”
They are in Jeffersonville, veritable neighbors linked by Bixler’s generosity and Kwitonda’s ambition. She makes time for grandchildren and exercise at the Y. He wears himself out handling shipments at Amazon while waiting to begin his sophomore year at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.
Bixler arrived in Jeffersonville with her husband Mark, who coached basketball at the high school until dying, as a young man, of brain cancer in 1989. Kwitonda came to town only five years ago, adrift, living literally alone at times though but a teenager.
He grew up in war-torn Rwanda, his father having been killed before Leonard’s birth. Sports provided joy and respite where there otherwise wasn’t much. This youngster played every game he could. That included basketball and a national team he joined was headed to a camp in the United States.
To Kwitonda’s surprise, his mother arranged for her son to stay with a friend in America. Seemed like the best of a bunch of bad options. Kwitonda learned of all of this at the airport. When would he again see his family? Would he again see his family? Questions way too heavy for a child loomed unanswered as he boarded the plane.
Kwitonda eventually found himself in Jeffersonville, neither familiar with English nor enrolled in school. His road from old life to new one included bump after bump, predictable at least in hindsight.
Kwitonda indeed lived by himself, before being taken in awhile by the family of fellow student Austin Hines. Kwitonda’s fortunes improved, as well, via nothing short of determination and maturity not found in some people twice Kwitonda’s age.
Kwitonda played sports at Jeffersonville High and won a ton of hearts like Bixler’s. “He really puts things in perspective,” Bixler said. “You think you have problems.”
Wearing a Jeff High basketball shirt, Kwitonda and I talked on a recent day off from his summer job.
“I have to be a driven person, set goals,” he said. “I do that a lot, set goals and review them. I see what I’ve accomplished, what I need to do.”
As we talked, Audrey Baines listened. She is the transplanted Kwitonda’s anchor, at 56 his light-hearted, adoptive mother. Providing foster care and beyond is Baines’ lot in life. Kwitonda is one of five young people currently in Baines’ loving care at Family Ark, off Allison Lane.
Baines urges Kwitonda to share his story, appreciative how it inspires.
“He does not let it define him,” Baines said of his trauma. “I ask him, ‘You sure you don’t want any counseling?’”
It helps me too, Kwitonda said, to go over where he has been and where he expects to go.
At IUPUI, Kwitonda pursues degrees in French — one of the four languages he speaks — and in Supply Chain Management. Scholarships such as Bixler’s are life savers, of course, and another guardian angel also is ready to help Kwitonda buy a house.
Kwitonda looks forward both to qualifying for American citizenship and to visit awhile in Rwanda. In the meantime, technology routinely connects Kwitonda to the family from which he had to flee.
“I want him to get rich and famous, go back to Rwanda and be president,” Baines said, smiling. “I can be the mother of the President.”
Kwitonda waved a Rwandan flag on our Fourth of July. He feels as contented as anyone displaced five years ago in a snap could be. Baines predicts only more success for her new son, one she proudly shares with a far-off mother. Again smiling, Baines imagines Kwitonda settling perhaps in London, being someone important somewhere away. “Then you can come back and take care of your mom,” Baines said.
It was Kwitonda’s turn to smile. “You never know where life takes you,” he said.
Read this story at the News and Tribune.