Young Alumna Of The Year: Katie Wilhoit Kilpatrick

October 5, 2010

Growing up in a Baylor family, it never crossed Katie's mind that the university might honor her like others she'd read about all her life. "Those people wrote best-sellers, won elections and ran massive companies. I'm just a beginning teacher in a third-world country."

That third-world country is Haiti, where Katie Wilhoit Kilpatrick, BA '08, and her husband, Ben, moved just before New Years Day 2010 to teach and minister to children. Little did they know that a devastating earthquake would arrive a mere two weeks later. Those tenuous days and months that followed tested their resolve, but through it all, the Kilpatricks stood on solid ground, strengthened by faith and a higher purpose.

Kilpatrick says her heart for missions caught fire during her years at Baylor, where she was surrounded by servant-hearted friends and inspired by her professors and courses.

"Baylor's campus is my favorite place on the planet. So much joy, so much learning, so much dreaming went on there," says the 25-year-old, who majored in religion and graduated summa cum laude. "It was at Baylor that I decided that all I wanted in the whole world was to do something with eternal significance," she says. "All I wanted was to matter, to leave a legacy.

"At Baylor, from the first day of Welcome Week, you are hearing about finding a calling instead of a career, a passion instead of a job. It seems like a big and scary burden sometimes; just finding a 'job' would be easier! But all around me were these young women -- one friend starting the Kianga Project to provide jobs for AIDS widows in Nairobi, one spending summers loving teenage girls in Peru, other friends teaching an after-school dance class at Doris Miller Elementary. So many people were already laying the foundation of a life in missions."

As Kilpatrick's passion grew, her Baylor experience proved instrumental in preparing her to be a full-time servant in a world full of challenges.

"The most significant influence on my life at Baylor was my time in Pi Beta Phi," she says. "The alumni, the advisors, the other members -- they loved the nations, they were so sharp, creative, smart, polished, such go-getters. They taught me how to pursue 'a most noble womanhood.'

"Several professors were important shaping influences as well: Mwalimu [James] Houser in Swahili, Dr. [Jonathan] Tran and Dr. [Paul] Martens in ethics and theology, Dr. [Alden] Smith who led my study abroad in Rome. I am still wrestling with what I learned in bioethics with Dr. Tran and think about it almost daily. Also, I was profoundly moved by Professor [Thomas] Odegaard's class on the economics of poverty, Dr. [Preston] and Dr. [Genie] Dyer's Marriage and the Family, and Dr. [Marc] Ellis' Hitler and the Holocaust."

"Ben and I saw in the Bible how God's heart breaks for injustice and suffering, and as we started our careers and lives together, we felt like nothing would satisfy us if it had no eternal significance. We felt like our lives totally revolved around our pleasure and ourselves. Finally, we just couldn't take it anymore; we had to do something."

Over a period of time, the Kilpatricks realized their call to missions and began searching for a teaching abroad opportunity. They found Quisqueya Christian School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Ben and Katie were in their apartment when the quake hit and found refuge in a stairwell. Their school was the only one in the city left undamaged. One student died, and several lost parents.

Without medical training and with no knowledge of the city or language, the Kilpatricks agonized over whether or not to evacuate. They didn't know when the school would reopen or if they would be needed.

It would have been easy to justify fleeing this ravaged country after just arriving, but the Kilpatricks came to Haiti with a purpose. While others evacuated, Ben and Katie chose to stay, subsisting on one-meal-a-day rations and the prayers of loved ones. They moved out of their apartment and into the school -- and they didn't have to wait long for God to use them in ways they never imagined.

"God brought us to this country, to this place at this time, for a purpose," Katie wrote on her blog, "What would we do if we went back to the states -- sit? We sold all our things, quit our jobs, gave up our home [in Dallas]."

During the nerve-wracking weeks after the Jan. 12 quake, they helped evacuate an orphanage, run medics and supplies to makeshift hospitals, and retrofit parts of campus as a U.S. Army command center and as a hub for medical supplies and relief personnel from around the world. Hundreds of doctors and troops slept in tents on campus every night.

By early February, class was back in session. First-year teachers Katie and Ben taught 7th-11th graders in a single room, all at the same time. The Kilpatricks rotated class discussions and reading and writing assignments so that every grade could continue learning at the appropriate level. Of the 300 students previously attending the school, just 65 initially returned.

The couple settled into something of a routine, teaching classes during the day and doing relief work in the evenings and on weekends. Katie also worked on public relations and fundraising for the school.

Both Katie's parents, Randy, BBA '80, MBA '82, and Susan Rhodes, BBA '81, MBA '82, Wilhoit, are Baylor alumni. Katie's brother, Matt, attended Baylor and is serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.

"We're incredibly proud of the work that Katie and Ben have done, and of their faithfulness," says Susan.'"It was really pretty amazing to see God at work in all the details. At one point throughout this process I had a moment of clarity ... I remembered the Bible verse I claimed for Katie when she was a little girl, 2 Timothy 1:7: 'For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.' Be careful what you pray for!"

By mid-September, Katie and Ben had adjusted to life in Haiti and their second school year at Quisqueya.

"We are teaching bursting classrooms instead of just a handful, as our school now has more students than before the quake," Katie says. "We've moved into our own apartment, and more groceries are available. We feel much more confident as teachers in our second year, and knowing more Kreyol makes all the difference in the world."

She says that unfortunately, Haiti has not yet experienced the level of improvement she had hoped to see.

"Haitians are still suffering immensely. One million are homeless, living in homemade tents while the soaking rains pour every night. Giant piles of broken concrete are everywhere. Billions have been pledged, but not yet given. In the tent cities, sexual violence is shockingly high. We are all very prayerful and cautious about the November presidential elections here."

The Kilpatricks know that lives can be shaken in the blink of an eye, as they've seen firsthand. Because of this, they have chosen not to try to set their future plans in stone.

"I would never in a million years have guessed where God's crazy, amazing plan would lead me," Katie says. "Initially Ben and I planned on being in Haiti a few years, but we made a 'don't talk about after Haiti' rule because the message from the earthquake was loud and clear -- you never know what is just around the corner."

Regardless of where she goes or what she does, Katie Kilpatrick will be standing on solid ground -- whether the earth shakes or not.

Read the Profiles:

Alumnus of the Year: J. Cary Gray
Young Alumna of the Year: Katie Wilhoit Kilpatrick
Pro Ecclesia, Medal Of Service: Dr. Bill Pinson
Pro Texana, Medal Of Service: Sen. Kirk Watson
Baylor Legacy Award: Sadie Jo Black
Baylor Legacy Award: Sue Holt Getterman
Baylor Legacy Award: Harold Riley
Baylor Legacy Award: Clifton Robinson
Baylor Founders Medal: Charles and Mary Alice Wise
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