Locals may know Erin McNair from her recent volleyball days at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch. As a four-year varsity starter for the Eagles, McNair was the captain of the 29-0, 5A state champion team in 2022. She recently returned from a trip overseas that she said changed her life forever.
She’s about to begin her freshman season at Princeton University. But before she arrived on campus, McNair spent two weeks over the summer in Kenya with HEART (Health Education Africa Resource Team), a faith-based humanitarian organization that focuses on empowering vulnerable individuals in Africa to live a full and fulfilling life beyond HIV.
“A huge part of Valor is our Discovery program,” McNair said. “I have two older brothers and my oldest brother actually went on this trip in 2018. So, all throughout my years of high school, I was looking forward to a Discovery trip. It was kind of Kenya that caught my eye just because he had those similar experiences.”
At the beginning of last year, McNair said applications began, and she was accepted as the only senior who would make the trip.
The trip was mostly based in Nairobi, but the group also visited Kibera, the largest of slums in Kenya, and one of the largest in Africa and the world at large. Valor has worked with HEART before, and the organization provides about seven primary programs that serve different causes.
McNair’s chosen program was WEEP, or Women’s Equality Empowerment Program. To be a WEEP mother, you have to be single or widowed, be HIV positive, and have three or more kids that are in a very vulnerable state, McNair said.
“We were able to visit one of the WEEP women’s houses,” McNair said. “Her name was Benta. It was the tiniest house you could imagine, yet she had so much joy and she was so proud to show us that ultimately she had a roof over her head. That’s something that I wasn’t really ready to feel, the emotions that I did. I kind of just expected this whole trip to be butterflies and rainbows, even though that probably sounds ignorant now.”
McNair also was able to build mud houses and spent time volunteering in schools. Her group helped supply new school uniforms and put on a field day for the kids while they were there.
The group also provided basic meals of bread and milk for the students. McNair was overwhelmed and awestruck by how much joy was brought by something so seemingly simple.
“I’ve never seen such excited kids over something that seems so simple like bread and milk,” McNair said. “Just seeing and experiencing ultimately how much they have overcome and how much joy they have, even though they have almost nothing materialistically, is a lesson I will forever keep with me. This kind of joy I saw in Kenya … I truly believe it only comes from God.”
McNair attributes a lot of her faith to her former volleyball coach at Valor, Jayme McHugh. When someone approaches every day with the intent to serve others, it’s contagious, she said.
“[McHugh] came in her first year, my freshman year, and so we were kind of new together,” McNair said. “Her biggest thing is she really is a woman of faith. She just influenced me that I’m not here to make the world better for myself but to make the world better for other people. I think that kind of sparked this service in my heart. I just attribute a lot of her passion for God, which kind of lit my heart on fire for the same thing as well.”
While helping the Princeton Tigers compete for a third Ivy League title in four years, McNair is taking Swahili, which she was pleasantly surprised to learn was offered at the university, in an effort to connect more with the country and people that gave her so much.
She’s hopeful and determined to return in the near future.
“This trip was truly the most incredible experience of my life,” McNair said. “It was really a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. However, I am hoping that I’ll be able to go back and still have an impact in Kenya any way that I can.”
For now, McNair turns her sights back to the court, where she feels more than prepared to make the jump to college play. Princeton lost six seniors last season to graduation, so McNair is fired up about contributing early and significantly.
To keep up with McNair’s college volleyball journey, keep up with the Tigers at www.goprincetontigers.com/sports/womens-volleyball/schedule.