Interview with Kendall Ciesiemer, founder of Kids Caring 4 Kids

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A famous anonymous poem reads, “100 years from now, no one will remember how much money I had in the bank, what kind of car I drove or what kind of job I had. But I will be remembered as someone special because I made a difference in the life of a child.” If this is true (and it undoubtedly is!), Kendall Ciesiemer has cemented her place in history. The now Georgetown University sophomore started her organization Kids Caring 4 Kids when she was just 11 years old, and it has taken her places she never dreamed. Find out more about Kendall and how she and her trusty band of changemakers are helping kids in Africa realize their own dreams:

Like many great things, your organization was inspired at first by Oprah. Tell us a little more about how it all got started.

Kendall: In December of 2003, I watched an Oprah Winfrey Christmas Special highlighting the plight of African AIDS orphans. I saw kids that were my age (11 at the time) taking care of their younger siblings because both of their parents had died of AIDS. I was stunned. I had never witnessed something like that—kids living alone, with no running water or electricity. I knew that if these children had been born in the United States, they would not be living alone in these conditions. I felt like I had won the birth lottery and, because of that, I felt a responsibility to do something.

Immediately after the show, I searched for a way to help. I googled “AIDS Orphans in Africa” and found World Vision’s Orphan Sponsorship program. I then pulled out my saved-up birthday and Christmas money amounting to $360 and sent it off to sponsor a little 8-year-old girl in Mauritania.

Months later, I received a letter back from Benite and she wrote how she was doing so well, being in school for the first time and learning how to read, add and write. I felt so empowered by the fact that I, as one 11-year-old girl, had made a difference in another 8-year-old girl’s life.  I knew that with a little help I could do so much more.

That summer, the summer after my 5th grade year, I underwent two liver transplants. I was born with a rare liver disease called Biliary Atresia that necessitated a transplant. During this time, I worked with World Vision again to sponsor a larger project in Zambia, sponsoring the village of Musele, Zambia. I asked that friends and family donate to this project in lieu of gifts and flowers while I was in the hospital.

By the end of the summer, I had raised over $15,000. After hearing of my effort, kids from across the country started their own sales, penny wars, garage sales and other fundraisers. As a result of this snowball effect, I decided to officially organize my effort, calling it “Kids Caring 4 Kids,” and in January of 2005, Kids Caring 4 Kids became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Your organization found momentum when you started sponsoring African children and villages. What is your advice for youth who want to sponsor others around the world?

Kendall: There are a variety of organizations working to help connect young people with people around the world. Find where your heart pulls you and contact the organization about working with them towards the same goal. They will definitely want to help you!

How many trips have you been on to Africa? What have been the most eye-opening things you saw?

Kendall: I’ve actually have only been to Africa once and I visited our projects in Zambia and South Africa specifically. Due to my health conditions, it’s very complicated for me to go to Africa because of all of the health risks. The first time I was allowed to go was when I was a junior in high school. I haven’t gone back since for a variety of reasons, but I can’t wait to get back.

What I witnessed abroad was a combination of great need and great hope and opportunity. Kids are living with their grandparents or with other distant relatives because HIV and AIDS has caused the death of their parents, but these kids are resilient and they want nothing more than the opportunity to get an education in order to build a life for themselves. I saw change starting to take root when girls are given the opportunity to attend school and when a community is given access to clean water.

There are so many different important needs your projects address. How do you identify and prioritize your projects and how your resources are allocated to them?

Kendall: We are committed to providing basic human needs to children in sub-Saharan Africa, so we take grant requests from other grassroots initiatives and organizations. We work with the groups that can show us their impact, are committed to our goals and will be good partners to us as well. We often will work on one project at a time and, once that project is completed or has been tended to for a while, we move on to other projects.

Which project has been closest to your heart to date?

Kendall: This is a hard one. I love them all really. I’m very passionate about the project we are working on now to help build a high school for the children of the Lifesong School in Kitwe, Zambia. I think it’s amazing that these kids are ready for a high school (since the school only started a few years ago…they’ve come so far) and I’m so excited to be working to help that happen.

You’ve set a $1 million fundraising goal. What are your top tips on non-profit fundraising?

Kendall: Wow, I wish I had them, because I’m always in need of them.  I’m going to be honest, it’s hard to fundraise. Sometimes I feel like I have a job as a professional beggar and I certainly don’t like that. For me, it’s all about trial and error and trying to find ways for young people to respond to your “ask.” We really believe in making fundraising a fun project, and therefore we try and build fundraising campaigns that we think would be fun to participate in and organize.

Your efforts have gotten the attention of people like Oprah and Bill Clinton. How has that given legitimacy to what you do and do you have any advice on getting prominent supporters?

Kendall: Well, I have to say that the “Oprah” effect is very real. Obviously having President Clinton and Oprah recognize my work in such a public way changed both the life of Kids Caring 4 Kids and my own life. The recognition definitely raised the stakes which can be overwhelming, but it’s allowed us to help so many more people by just getting the world out about what we are doing.  I don’t have any advice about getting “prominent” supporters.  I believe all supporters are good supporters and valuable supporters.  You need not worry about finding “powerful” people to give your work the stamp of approval, because your work is powerful on it’s own.  The love you put into what you are doing is what people will take notice of and that should always be your priority, to put love into your work, whatever it may be.

Any other words of wisdom for girls who want to make a difference?

Kendall: Follow your heart. Follow the love and make sure that it what is driving your work—nothing else. Also, find organizations out there that can help you do incredible things. There are so many people trying to help young people contribute, so take advantage of that opportunity! Find how you can use your strengths and talents to meet the world’s greatest needs because that is where great change will happen.

Check out Kendall and Kids Caring 4 Kids in this awesome YouTube video:

If you were going to start a non-profit, what would you do? Who would you help? Share your vision in the comments!

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