How do you describe a young woman who goes to Honduras on a mission trip at the age of 19, discovers a starving, disabled, neglected little boy and embraces him as her own, takes him to live with her in Chattanooga, attends classes at UTC while she raises him for the last two years, graduates, and then returns to Honduras to establish a non-profit program to help care for abused women and young mothers?
Kayla Austin is genuine, unique, inspirational, compassionate—think of a positive adjective and it applies.
Her life-changing story began in a steamy village in the Honduran rainforest, a place with dirt roads, mango and coconut trees, and electricity maybe 18 hours a day. Puerto Lempira is the home of the indigenous Miskito Indians.
While Austin was working at an orphanage and school there in 2012, she decided to visit the home of Nery, a 13-year-old girl who wasn’t attending school regularly. She discovered that Nery’s parents had gone away and left her to care for her six siblings.
Nery carried one of her brothers two miles to the orphanage the next day. Esteven had cerebral palsy, horrific sores all over his body, warts, bronchitis, and he was severely malnourished. He was nearly 12 years old and weighed only 23 pounds.
Austin immediately felt a connection and wanted to care for Esteven, though she had never had any experience with a physically disabled child. She bathed him and fed him, and fed him, and fed him. He gained ten pounds in two weeks. And slowly, Austin said, Esteven awoke to a second chance to live. He began to smile and respond to Austin. He mimicked her when she was on the phone, holding a small piece of paper to his ear. She realized there was “a lot going on inside his head.”
When she left to come back to UTC, it was incredibly difficult to take Esteven back to his family. She promised him she would come back for him. After his father sold the toys and clothing she had purchased for Esteven and bought drugs for himself, Austin decided she had waited long enough.
She waded through government paperwork and secured a medical visa to bring Esteven to the United States. She went back to Puerto Lempira where Esteven’s mother agreed to legally allow Austin to be the child’s guardian.
All the care she lined up for him had to be pro bono—no taxpayer money is allowed to be used for a medical visa in the United States.
“When I took Esteven to the pediatrician, the pediatrician knew someone, and that person knew someone—before I knew it, we had therapists lined up. At least three come to us each week. They are teaching me how to do his therapy and how to continue his progress,” Austin said.
Austin is a perfect example of a college student who is living in the “real world” and making a difference, according to Dr. Michelle Deardorff, Department Head, Political Science, Public Administration, and Nonprofit Management.
“We hear people talk about higher education as if students are in state of suspended animation until they graduate; Kayla demonstrates the falseness of that belief,” Deardorff said.
Austin has been preparing for another ambitious goal ahead. For the last two semesters, Katie Wilson, adjunct professor in Non Profit Management at UTC, has had conversations about Austin’s Project 541, the 501(c)3 nonprofit organization Austin has created to support and empower women and girls of La Moskitia, Honduras.
“Kayla’s experience directly applies to what we were talking about in class,” Wilson explained. “What does a board look like for a 501(c)3? How long did it take to receive an application? As Kayla was working through the details, her fellow students learned along with her. Her experience highlights the importance of non-profit work and its unique place in our community. It helps students who are interested in this field to go on and change the world.”
Wilson nominated Austin for the One with Courage Award bestowed by the Children’s Advocacy Center of Hamilton County.
Deardorff is grateful for committed professionals like Wilson who teach UTC courses.
“Ms. Wilson’s engagement not only with her profession, but with our students, is demonstrated by her suggestion of Kayla for the award, but more importantly, knowing Kayla well enough to recognize the appropriateness of this nomination,” Deardorff said.
By the time Austin was selected for the honor, Esteven had learned to communicate with more than 30 signs in sign language, he could feed himself finger foods, dress himself, and he can walk with assistance from a gait trainer.
Austin’s award celebrated her as an advocate who has the courage to inspire and educate children by offering hope for their future. And Austin herself was well on her way to establishing Project 541.
Austin is glad her parents pushed her to finish her undergraduate degree at UTC. They are very supportive—her father is president of the board for Project 541.
After she graduates on May 3, she and Esteven will return to Honduras on May 16, probably permanently, Austin says. She looks ahead to establishing a residential home, a mentoring program for girls housed in orphanages in the community, and a program for young mothers 18 years and younger. She already knows of two 11-year-old girls who are pregnant and need help.
She will continue to take Esteven to visit with his parents, although they have made it clear they do not expect him to rejoin their family. Austin has noticed that when they go back to visit, the interaction with Esteven’s parents gets better each time.
Just the other day, Austin asked Esteven “What says meow?” She was astounded when he signed “cat.” He can now make more cognitive associations than she imagined he could.
Austin explained there is a strong connection between Esteven’s life and the lives of girls and young women in Honduras she wants to help, girls who have been sold as sex slaves, girls who have been the victims of incest.
“It’s all about having a second chance. Everyone deserves a second chance.”