20 years, 9,000 miles and hundreds of lives
Dick and Toini Landis found purpose in Africa
There are buildings named after Big Sky residents Richard “Dick” and Toini Landis nearly 9,000 miles from Lone Peak. This is because the arcs of their lives led them to make a difference.
Toini carries herself with a level of respectability that cannot be faked and likely cannot even be taught. With poise reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn, she stood beside her husband, Dick, and discussed a life brimming with adventure and foreign travel. The couple told of multiple trips to Africa. Not for safari, either.
Dick has journeyed the long and difficult trek to Kenya 45 times over the last 20 years – in order to use his business expertise for good. The couple made a huge impact on the lives of hundreds of children and several communities.
“It’s easy to ignore problems like that. It’s easy to go to Kenya on safari and see the animals and live in these nice tents – that are nicer than your house – and drive past these places and ignore them,” Dick said. “But I can’t ignore them. It’s too important. I just want to do something to see if we can make a life better.”
Before they became dedicated to Kenya, they first made their way to Big Sky.
“Big Sky has been good to us and we have loved it here. We have met some wonderful people,” Dick said.
One of those people is Jim Smith, who was the emeritus professor of pathology at the Indiana University Medical School. An AIDS related medical program was established in partnership with Purdue University. One night, over a nice dinner up on the mountain, Smith said he was going back to Kenya. His wife said she wanted to stay home.
“I don’t know why but I said, I’ll go with ya. He said what would you do? I said I don’t have any idea what I’d do, but I’ve never been without a job for very long – I’d probably figure it out. So, I went along,” Dick said.
The university team found a spot for him working in the children’s ward.
“I’m not a children’s person. I’m not the person who is going to find a baby and pick them up and hold them. It just isn’t me,” he said. “I went to work at the hospital and I spent the whole morning holding a kid, wondering why I was getting wet on.”
He had lunch with some members of the Indiana University team and said he really did not want to go back.
The wife of the program director had an idea. There was someone she knew who could use his business acumen – Phyllis “Mama” Keino, who had started a grassroots effort in the wake of the AIDS epidemic – Karibuni Kwa Lewa Children’s Home. That meeting set the course for the next 20 years of the Landis’ lives.
Dick is relaxed and amiable – one of those natural-born leaders. He told the story of friendships and connections, business revenue used for good, generative ideas that led to saving children – and sustainable solutions for entire communities. There is a saying: You can do well, but if you do not also do good, then you can never be truly happy. His father and his business mentor both taught him to give back.
“Just giving the money is too easy. You’ve got to get your hands dirty and be part of it,” Dick said. “If you don’t, you’re wasting your time.”
Through the power of partnership with Bread and Water for Africa, the Landis’ helped supply clean water to an entire village, helped build a medical clinic, a high school, a primary school and helped upgrade the children’s home and make it fully sustainable. First, though, Dick had to convince some people to think differently.
In 2003, he attended a meeting of the board of directors of the children’s home.
“I said to them: ‘I have established a business plan here. It’s a rough outline. We’re going to change it. It’s a living document, but it’s our guide for how we are going to proceed in this business. I’m raising $1 million a year to sustain this project. I don’t mind doing it. I don’t begrudge that, but I’m not going to do it forever. We are going to establish and operate this business plan because by 2014 this project will be self-sufficient,’” he said. “I will tell ya – I was looking at a whole table of deer in the headlights.”
He explained that he had to stay on top of it because he noticed cultural differences in the way long-term projects are approached.
Many people in Africa do not think in terms of possibilities. “They often think in realities,” he said. “The reality is, it is hard to plan five years down the road if your belly is empty.”
His plan of making use of funds from a for-profit primary school and proceeds from the sale of farm products to support the children’s home came to fruition. The project has been entirely self sufficient since 2014. He said the people involved made it happen.
Now, the farm that helps sustain the children’s home has 180 head of cattle, which started from a Rotary donation of one bull and five cows. They hired a Dutch farm manager who used those cows to create a thriving dairy farm, cheese that they process and sell. Fresh vegetables are grown. Plus, there are now hot showers for children who have never known such luxuries. It is a place of celebration through community and empowerment through education.
Dick said that every child has a story. He becomes emotional when he talks about William – the Kenyan boy he almost adopted; the boy with the guileless grin who just graduated from high school – thanks to the children’s home. William was buried alive alongside his twin brother by his parents. A dog dug him up and gave him a second chance at life. Implications of the sustained lack of oxygen continue today, but William is joyful, deeply loved by people in his community – and by the Landis’ here in Big Sky.
The couple just celebrated 55 years of marriage and will soon leave Big Sky to head back to Iowa – back to their roots and closer to their children. It was there that they developed the means to help people in Africa. Dick functioned as a collegiate track coach for both Coe College and Cornell College while also forging his path as an entrepreneur and businessman. A “track freak” he has always loved coaching middle distance runners – and has coached many Olympic distance runners. He said he was a coach before he ever knew he was a coach. Incidentally, his business card does not say CEO. It says “head coach”.
Tom Parseghian, a golfing budding of Dick’s from Spanish Peaks describes the couple as a class act. He wrote in an email that he admires them and is sorry they are leaving.
Their time in Africa “taught us to be aware of the needs, and then as far as we are capable to address those needs as much as we could do. I think it has taught us to be tolerant and to be observant,” Dick said. “People have an obligation within their means to do whatever they can do.”