Krystina Finn will be honored posthumously next month by Catholic Memorial High School with the Distinguished Young Alumni award for her work cofounding a non-profit that helps impoverished Kenyan women become financially independent.
But according to family and friends, Krystina – who founded the Kipsongo Project the same year she was diagnosed with cancer – would be the last person in the world to expect acclamation for her efforts.
“Honestly, if Krystina were here and she was accepting this award, she would be like, ‘Oh my gosh you guys, stop, stop, this is nothing,’” said Krystina’s older sister, Molly, with a laugh. “She never wanted the spotlight on herself – never. It was always about other people. It was never about her.”
Krystina Finn died Dec. 6, 2014, after a two-year battle with cancer. A 2007 graduate of Catholic Memorial High School, she was a natural choice for the Distinguished Young Alumni Award, said CMH president Fr. Paul Hartmann.
“Krystina truly, in a short life, accomplished what I would think any parent would want their child to be able to do, any school administrator would want a graduate to be able to do, any person of faith would want to see themselves or another person accomplish,” he said. “She really was a very special and a unique person when all of those qualities came together.”
Turning slum dwellers into businesswomen
Krystina and her friend, Lindsey Casagrande, founded the Kipsongo Project in 2012 while volunteering in Kipsongo, an area of the town of Kitale in Kenya. According to the organization’s website, Kipsongo is one of the country’s most depressed slums, and most residents inhabit mud-floor dwellings constructed from plastic bags tied together and stretched over sticks.
Krystina was deeply affected by the plight of the slum’s residents, particularly the women, recalled Molly, who relateda story about Krystina helping a local woman make chapati, a Kenyan flatbread. The woman then went to sell the bread outside of a local school and make a profit for her family.
“Krystina was like, ‘That’s great! This is your work, this is you, you’re doing this – this is all you.’ I think that whole experience just helped her to see that they just need to understand that there are other options for them,” said Molly. “She would always tell me that the women just didn’t know – they didn’t know that there were other options than prostitution, or didn’t know that they could do certain things because they were under the arms of the men in the family.”
Krystina and Casagrande met with community leaders to identify areas of development on which the community wished to focus, including child nutrition, education and women’s microfinance projects. They then partnered with Laura Katzman, a New York City-based fashion designer and friend of Casagrande, to help the Kipsongo women make and sell home goods, jewelry and clothing.
“Jewelry-making has long been a tradition of the Turkana tribe – the tribe which residents in Kipsongo are part of – so we decided it made sense to take something the women already excelled at and turn it into something they could make a living off of,” said Casagrande in an email from Kenya.
Today, the Kipsongo Project employs 15 Kenyan women as jewelers, seamstresses and project managers. They have approximately 20 local children enrolled in a combined nutrition and education program and about 25 local women enrolled in their microfinance program, which has distributed over 100 microloans subsequently used by the women to support their small businesses.
The project also sends approximately 15 children to primary and secondary boarding schools outside of the slum and funds preventive health measures for local residents – “typically in the form of distributing water filters or bed nets to prevent diseases such as typhoid and malaria,” wrote Casagrande.
‘A sacrificial leader’
Fr. Hartmann told the Catholic Herald Krystina is remembered very warmly within the CMH community, and that her promise was already beginning to exhibit itself when she was a student at the school. Her five brothers and sisters also graduated from CMH.
“As I look back and see the different nomination materials and see the different awards — she was involved with service club, she was involved with the international outreach — so this was already beginning to show itself when she was a student,” he said.
The second-youngest child of Mary and Michael Finn, parishioners at St. Charles Parish, Hartland, Krystina was “a funny girl who literally loved life,” said Molly.
“She took any adventure with open eyes and she just had fun. She always saw fun in any experience or any challenge that she had,” she said.
Krystina attended the University of Minnesota and graduated with a degree in architecture; she enrolled in graduate school at the University of Colorado-Denver in fall 2012. She had hoped to have a career in bringing sustainable architecture to people in Third World countries.
Cancer diagnosis doesn’t slow her
She was diagnosed with cancer in November 2012, at the age of 23, recalled Molly.
“I don’t know what she had thought internally, but she definitely played everything off like everything was going to be fine,” she said. “Everything was always the next chapter, what she was going to do next. She was always looking into the future. She said, ‘This is the biggest challenge I have, this is going to be the biggest mountain I’ll ever have to climb, but I can do it.’”
Molly added that observing the strong faith of her parents was a big comfort to Krystina.
“I think she would pray for strength and courage, and I think she definitely would lean on God,” said Molly. “My parents are very religious, and I think she saw how much God was able to help my mom, and because she was so selfless she saw the power that God gave my mom and knew, took that power in for herself as well.”
As a Catholic, Molly said, Krystina’s greatest strength was that she truly “understood love.”
Krystina took some time off and enrolled in online classes while undergoing treatment in Wisconsin, but her battle with cancer didn’t slow her involvement with Project Kipsongo. She even toyed – seriously – with the idea of shaving the Project Kipsongo logo onto her head before beginning chemotherapy as a way to raise awareness and funds.
“She was very laid back and nothing ever seemed to phase her. If it did, she’d somehow turn the situation into something positive or funny,” said Casagrande. “One morning when I was visiting her in Wisconsin (shortly before her death) she ended up in the ER because she was having trouble breathing. Rather than feel sorry for herself, she used the ER visit as an opportunity to get more people to sign up for an upcoming 5K run/walk fundraiser. I believe she got eight new registrants from that ER trip … and then the following day she went down to Chicago to give an interview about the project.”
Krystina’s spirit is alive
Almost a year after her death, Krystina’s spirit is still very much alive in the hearts of her friends and family, and in the Project Kipsongo office in Kenya. Casagrande reports that the staff is considering a number of ways to honor the memory of their co-founder, possibly through a scholarship fund for Kipsongo students.
Most of Krystina’s siblings, as well as her parents and many classmates and friends, will attend the alumni awards ceremony on Nov. 11 at Country Springs Hotel.
“I think this awards ceremony is a way for everybody else to see how amazing she was,” said Molly. “When she was here we all knew she was amazing, but to look back and see all of her work … I think it’s a way for us to share her with everybody.”
“What anybody will see in looking at Krystina’s life is just how she became a person who was selfless – who was a sacrificial leader, as we say in the church,” said Fr. Hartmann. “She was a strong young lady, she had a drive and had an ability to organize others … and then ultimately we just see in her and in her family how it was all rooted in her faith.”