On a Sunday night during his early years at Xavier, Kevin Fleming sat in a pew in Bellarmine Chapel listening to a sermon by Michael Graham, SJ, who was then a member of the faculty. Graham was talking about a moment when he’d made one of the most important decisions of his life—how he weighed his love for God and the Church against his desire for marriage and family and how in the end he chose the priesthood.
The sermon made a huge impact on Fleming because of the gravity of the decision Graham had to make.
“What I remember was (Father Graham) making a huge leap of faith based on something he believed in, and he believed this was the path he needed to follow,” Fleming recalls. “It made an impression on me because of the way he verbalized the decision-making process in his life.”
Fleming, a psychology major from tiny Baltimore, Ohio, would graduate and go on, years later, to meet with the president of Liberia, the country’s minister of health, and with officials from the United Nations, the Centers for Disease Control, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
As part of an organization called Last Mile Health, he would penetrate the rain forest on the back of a motorcycle and get dropped into a remote village by a U.N. helicopter. There, he would combat the world’s escalating Ebola epidemic. And he would never forget the face of one little girl who’d been stricken by the disease.
“It was hard to see a family left behind and sad, because they know the outcome is not good if you test positive for Ebola, and they can’t console each other, and I can’t go hug them and console them,” Fleming says.
Fleming doesn’t know what happened to the girl or if she even survived. But she became, for him, the face of Ebola, an image that sealed for him the reason he went to Liberia in the first place.
The next phase of his life began in January 2015 with his new job as the Peace Corps Country Director for Liberia.
“One thing about Kevin is his courage,” says Raj Pinjabi, founder and CEO of Last Mile Health. “Being on the front lines of the world’s worst epidemic in the last century, and doing it with the good humor, charm and leadership he brings, and that courage he displays, is huge. His connection with Liberia has helped this country through this crisis, and it’s an invaluable perspective to bring to the Peace Corps.”
Being a Country Director was a long-held dream for Fleming. After it came true, all he can think about is how fortunate he is. It’s a feeling that began when he was a student at Xavier and discovered that helping others was an actual student activity—and even a profession for some.
He discovered the Dorothy Day House and its mission of service, where people did amazing things for other people both within Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods and in rural areas considered “off the grid.” He signed up for one of their trips and wound up sleeping in the attic of a farmhouse in rural Appalachia, where he and other students worked over a weekend to help teach and learn about sustainable agricultural practices.
Growing up on a farm in central Ohio, he knew about hogs and business and hard work and pitching in for his community, but this idea of intentional service work to benefit whole communities was entirely new. He was drawn to it like a magnet, and after graduating in 1994 with a degree in psychology, he went through a series of life-changing experiences with non-profit organizations from California to New York and eventually around the world.
“I was inching into this,” he says. “Xavier gave me a playground to dip my toe into and try different things and it had its impact on me, but I didn’t know how to turn it into a full-time job, and I was afraid to because I didn’t know people who did it.”
Thinking back on Graham’s difficult life-changing decision, Fleming mustered up his own courage and applied to Teach for America, and got in.
“I wanted to be part of a movement, to be around people who wanted to make a statement and change in the world,” he says. “My time at Xavier is what put me on that path.”
READ MORE about the Ebola epidemic in the BBC’s “Ebola: Mapping the outbreak” and “We’re going to win very soon,” from the World Health Organization. LEARN MORE about Kevin Fleming in Xavier Magazine.