In 1999, a spiritual crisis smacked Zane Wilemon where he lived.
"I had this intense impulse to decide what I believed in," Wilemon, now 35, says. "I went through a lot of internal wrestling."
He sifted through options and dabbled in Buddhism. Then his grandmother asked if Wilemon had ever read the Bible. Although raised a Christian, he had not.
"I thought: ‘Before I drop a faith, I should read its text,’" he says. "It was a practical decision. Every morning, I read the Bible. It broke me in half. It didn’t lead me to peace that year, but it led me to Africa."
In 2000, Wilemon made his first trip to Kenya.
"It was raw, alive, beautiful, real," he recalls. "It matched my hunger. I fell in love."
Today, the Austinite with a master’s degree in divinity runs a locally based charity, CTC International, with an annual budget of $1.7 million that partners with Africans to develop sustainable projects.
Teaming with the Whole Planet Foundation, for instance, CTC’s L.I.F.E. Line distributes garments, blankets and bags made by Kenyan villagers that Wilemon’s group taught to sew. Whole Foods Market carries the line in all its stores and sold more than 300,000 units last year.
"They were the poorest of the poor," Wilemon says of the newly trained mothers of disabled children. His group had built a school for those outcast children. "Now they are ‘the 1 percent’ in their villages."
A study in contrasts
Slender and taut-skinned like an extreme sportsman, Wilemon defies expectations. His scuffed work boots could mark him as a former fraternity brother — he pledged, in fact, Phi Delta Theta at the University of Kansas — but he has owned the Red Wings since he was a junior in high school. Resoled twice, they are no affectations.
"When I started working in Kenya, my socks would get dirty," he says. " So I started wearing these again. Everybody makes fun of me in Kenya because nobody wears boots there."
Named after Western pulp novel writer Zane Gray, Wilemon grew up among longtime North Texans. His great-grandfather founded the first bank in Arlington, and his grandfather merged it with former behemoth Texas Commerce Bank. His father, Stan Wilemon, runs an import firm, while his mother, Cindy McAlister, wrote for American Way magazine.
Other than his parents’ divorce and remarriage — he is close to both stepparents — Wilemon’s was a pretty carefree childhood.
"I was a troublemaker," he says. "Not a big rule follower. I was not making good grades, so Dad set me down and said: ‘None of this counts now, but when you go into ninth grade, it all goes on the record.’ For whatever reason, that stuck."
He turned around his schoolwork, ran track and played basketball and baseball. He later studied biology at Kansas.
After his spiritual crisis, he bought a one-way ticket to help the Africa Inland Mission’s hospital and school in the Rift Valley town of Kijabe. Once while there, he delivered food to an orphanage in Maai Mahiu, a down-mountain village.
"The poverty in this town is so bad it makes Kijabe seem like Mecca," he says. He befriended the pastor and director of the local orphanage.
"I felt like I was supposed to do something there," he says. When he left Africa, he backpacked, then moved to Montana to study at a small Bible college. "But I didn’t want Africa to be a check on a checklist, a story in my back pocket."
That’s when Wilemon created the Kenya Project. In 2002, he and friends from Texas, Kansas and Montana dug wells and built a trade school in Maai Mahiu.
"None of us had built anything before," he said. "We raised money from random donors, lived with 140 orphans. But we didn’t have a name — and reporters asked for one — so we called it ‘Comfort the Children.’"
Later renamed CTC, the group now employs 10 staff members and three interns aided by scores of volunteers. They have branched out with health and HIV-AIDS programs hand-in-hand with Bristol-Myers Squibb and Dell Children’s Medical Center.
While studying at Austin’s Seminary of the Southwest, he met his wife, Natalie Faye Ralston Wilemon, a stage and screen actress, opera singer and physical trainer. He was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church and served at Trinity Cathedral in San Jose, Calif., for two years. By 2009, CTC, his side project, had received enough money to go full time in Austin.
Like others in his generation, Wilemon and his group don’t rush in with solutions.
"The best way to help is to listen," he says. "Then empower. By empowering others, we, too, are empowered."