Kara Westermann rested before dinner. It had been a long day of mission work outside Granada, Nicaragua. Sitting on a bed, Westermann was tired. Even though it was evening, it still was hot and muggy. She took out her journal, posted the date – July 16, 2012 – and started writing.
“My heartstrings are pulled so tight it hurts to breathe. God, you haven’t moved in me this strong since my first trip to La Chureca...
“Jesus, where do I go from here? Am I going home or leaving it??”
Early on Aug. 17 Westermann got on a plane for a nine-hour journey. It was not a trip to a place of comfort; no warm showers or soft beds awaited her.
No, Westermann, who describes herself as a “simple girl from Rock Hill, South Car-o-lina,” was going home – to Nicaragua.
While she made the journey by herself, the 29-year-old Westermann was not alone. Her commitment to full-time mission work in Nicaragua would not be possible without her family and friends, her Christian faith and a community that has embraced her and shares her dreams.
As with most journeys, Westermann has come to many crossroads. Her choice has, more often than not, been the more difficult path.
One of her first crossroads in Nicaragua came in 2008 when she arrived in the capital city of Managua. She was doing marketing for a resort when she heard of La Chureca, a sprawling trash dump that is home to more than 1,000 people. Many of the dump’s residents are children who sort out trash to find food and eek out an existence.
Westermann visited the dump.
“It was the closest thing to hell on Earth I could imagine,” she said.
Filthy, malnourished children foraged for food, many of them without shoes to protect their feet. It was hot, the temperature intensified by the heat from burning methane gas. Vultures hovered in the air.
“No one cared for these children,” she said. “No children deserved to be there. It was the definition of injustice.”
Since then, Westermann has been on six mission trips to Nicaragua. Her last trip was in July 2012 when she took eight girls from York County there.
On July 16, 2012, she and others went to a neighborhood near Granada. They were soon swarmed by children. One child, a 5-year-old boy, “spoke to me,” Westermann said. He was like most of the children: filthy, malnourished, covered with a rash and likely wearing the only clothes he owned. He had soiled them so many times he stank.
Westermann walked to the boy, picked him up, and hugged him,
She gave him a bottle of water. He gulped it down quickly.
She went to a medicine chest to get something for his rash, but stopped. The child needed a bath.
There was no running water in the neighborhood. But Westermann found a concrete sink. Others found bottles of water and she bathed the child.
Soon the child, clean and clad in new clothes, was eating and doing what many 5-year-olds do normally, coloring with crayons.
Westermann said she did the only thing she knew how to do, love the child. Her actions surprised those working with her, both those who had come with her from York County and the native missionaries.
Their reaction, “it was humbling,” Westermann said.
The experience convinced Westermann to commit to full-time mission work in Nicaragua.
Now, she only had to convince her family, friends and her best friend and business partner, Harris Mullis.
When Westermann reached her decision, Mullis was on a much different journey. A month earlier he had been diagnosed with lymphoma.
Westermann and Mullis have been best friends since they met when they were 12 years old at Westminster Catawba Christian School. They were so close their friends mashed their names into one, “Kariss.”
After school they went their separate ways, Westermann earning a degree from the College of Charleston, and Mullis bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from the University of South Carolina.
They remained friends, and in 2010, Westermann approached Mullis about operating a restaurant together. But not just any restaurant. Westermann asked Mullis if he want to co-manage Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken on Cherry Road.
The restaurant has been a Rock Hill feature for more than three decades. Her uncle and aunt once managed the restaurant. Operations passed to her mother, Jan, who ran it from 1986 to 1996. When she was a child the restaurant was Westermann’s nursery and the place where she sold Girl Scout cookies.
The family sold the restaurant but maintained ownership of the building. The restaurant closed in 2009.
As mother and daughter renovated the building for possible sale, the idea of reopening Lee’s was broached. Kara Westermann asked her best friend, Mullis, to join her in operating Lee’s.
Mullis said he ignored all he had learned at USC. He went into business with his best friend.
“It was the best decision we made,” they said, almost in unison, adding that they’ve had one business fight since opening and “within five seconds we were hugging it out,” Westermann said.
In June 2012 Mullis was diagnosed with lymphoma. The cancer soon ravaged his body. He lost 50 pounds. He lost his signature black spiky hair, and his eyebrows. He was so weak he struggled to walk.
Westermann remembers when she heard the news. She went to church as they normally did. “There was a sense of missing him,” she said. “But I was at peace. The Lord said, ‘I’ve got him.’”
Customers at Lee’s missed Mullis, asking where he was. Westermann and the staff told them he had cancer.
“There was such an outpouring of love,” he said. “Never in a million years could we repay what we received.”
Then came Westermann’s fateful mission trip, and she returned to tell her still-recovering business partner that she was going to Nicaragua full time.
The request intimidated and scared Mullis. His cancer was in remission, he was regaining strength, but he was unsure of what was ahead.
He put his fears aside and asked his best friend, “How do we do this?”
It wasn’t until a recent trip to Nicaragua that Mullis was convinced.
He said it was seeing what Westermann was doing. He saw her drive through the neighborhoods in a white Jeep named Millie with her translator. “The kids poured out. It made it a reality for me.” One child latched onto Mullis and didn’t want to let him leave.
Mullis knew that he had to embrace her passion. “It was not something I could take from her.”
To raise money for her mission works, Westermann has formed a nonprofit organization, “Beauty for Ashes Project.” The name comes from Isaiah, chapter 61, verse three: for those who grieve, “bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”
Funds given to the nonprofit have gone to art therapy days in Las Banderas, Nicaragua, building a fish farm, sponsoring children and delivering food and clothes to children.
Through the crowd-sourcing website KickStart, Westermann has raised $8,000 to construct an art studio/classroom on the outskirts of Las Banderas.
The building will be constructed using eco-bricks, plastic bottles filled with inorganic trash. The bottles are then covered with stucco. The project helps clean up a neighborhood and helps people invest in their future, Westermann said.
Single women will be taught how to sew there and will have the opportunity to start their own micro business, creating goods to be sold in Nicaragua and for export.
The women also will be taught how to make school uniforms for children in the community, Westermann said. Each child must provide his or her own uniform, backpack and school supplies to attend schools in Nicaragua.
For families who struggle to put food on their table, purchasing school uniforms and supplies is difficult, Westermann said.
“Without a simple uniform, they do not receive an education and the poverty cycle cannot be broken,” she said.
Additional support for her missions is coming from Lee’s, which is paying her rent and health care in Nicaragua. “I couldn’t do this without the restaurant’s support,” she said. The support is just one of a number of charitable projects Lee’s has undertaken.
With that support from the restaurant, Westermann said she is able to commit almost 100 percent of the donated funds to her mission work.
With his best friend and business partner now back in Nicaragua, the 29-year-old Mullis admits, “we are living by question marks.” There are so many unknowns ahead, but they are ready to meet those challenges.
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066