Between reaching the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, helping children at St. Christopher’s in Dobbs Ferry and taking leadership of a Rockland County nonprofit, Kurt Kannemeyer has made his alma mater sit up and take notice. Late in 2018, he was named a Nelson Mandela University Alumni Achiever.
In November, the university flew him to its Port Elizabeth, South Africa, campus to accept the prestigious award. Kannemeyer, a Westchester resident who was born and raised in South Africa, was one of eight people honored by the university for the year and one of just three recipients of its “achiever” award. The award recognizes, “alumni who have gone the distance and beyond in their various fields, to the benefit of society at the local, provincial, national and international level. He accepted the award at a ceremony Nov. 23.
“It was a huge honor,” Kannemeyer says. “I never went into the nonprofit sector, or dedicated my life to helping people, by saying I want to get recognition or anything like that. You do it to change the lives of people. Empower and help them contribute to the well-being of their society.”
The ceremony capped a whirlwind fall for Kannemeyer, who also got married at the end of September.
WAG first profiled Kannemeyer in 2013, when he was preparing a trip to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The climb aimed to raise funds and awareness of the struggles and needs of St. Christopher’s, a residential treatment center for special education students in Dobbs Ferry. Kannemeyer was director of development for the nonprofit at the time. Altitude sickness scuttled his first attempt just short of the summit, but Kannemeyer would return in 2015 to raise a St. Christopher’s banner at the mountain’s peak, 19,341 feet above sea level.
In 2016, Kannemeyer took over as executive director of the Haitian American Cultural and Social Organization in Spring Valley, which provides a range of support services to Haitian immigrants and minority communities. The nonprofit also provided aid to Haiti following Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
It was earlier this year that Kannemeyer received a call from an administrator at Nelson Mandela University. The school had been tracking his accomplishments through LinkedIn and other social media, he says, and believed he was a fit for the achievement award. College officials had already reached out to his colleagues to discuss his credentials, Kannemeyer later found out.
“They looked at the person as a whole, the career path you took after you left the university to where you are now,” Kannemeyer adds.
At the time Kannemeyer studied there, the college was named University of Port Elizabeth. He graduated with a law degree in 1999. The college combined with two other universities in 2005 to form Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and then changed the name to Nelson Mandela University last year.
Receiving an award from a university that carries the name of Mandela — the late South African president and anti-apartheid revolutionary who believed in the value of education for empowerment — made the award even more of a “privilege and an honor,” Kannemeyer says.
Also, to be recognized within the thousands of students who have passed through the university, he adds, “I just thought, Wow. It didn’t really sink in until I got on the flight and traveled to South Africa.”
He took pride in sitting next to his 91-year-old grandmother, who lives in South Africa, during the ceremony. But he was also thinking of his parents and one of his sisters, each of whom had passed away within months of each other three years earlier.
“It’s both happy and sad to be standing there accepting something that my parents would have been proud to see,” he says. “Through their dedication and hard work, I received this education and was able to use that for helping others.”
He adds that “nothing I’ve ever accomplished I could have done on my own, it’s a collective effort. Knowing it takes a village, a community. That whole spirit of Ubuntu. We co-exist with one another.”