Kids Caring 4 Kids: Kendall Ciesemier Promotes Advocacy By Kids, For Kids
Kendall Ciesemier is finishing her college freshman year at Georgetown University, but unlike most young women beginning college, Kendall has been fighting a chronic illness. Diagnosed with a rare liver disease at birth, Kendall Ciesemier has never given up hope, and never stopped working hard. At age 11, she began raising money for children in Africa, founding and leading the nonprofit organization Kids Caring 4 Kids. She has raised nearly $1 million with the help of young people all around the United States. She is a recipient of the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, which celebrates 25 outstanding young leaders who have made a significant positive difference to people and our planet. Teen Voices was able to talk with Kendall about the challenges she has faced and overcome. Kendall believes that no one should ever give up, but keep on fighting until you can make a difference.
Teen Voices (TV): You were born with a rare liver disease and you had to undergo two transplants at age 11. How did this change your life?
Kendall Ciesemier (KC): Because I was born with a chronic illness, I’ve never lived a life different from that. So while undergoing two liver transplants was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, I had already gone through surgeries, procedures, tests, and lots of doctor appointments. Basically, I have learned through experiencing a chronic illness that you have to live each day as best as you can, not worry about the future, and not hold yourself back. Live fearlessly!
TV: During those transplants you began a nonprofit organization called “Kids Caring 4 Kids.” When you had so much to worry about in your own life, you were concerned with AIDS victims in Africa—why?
KC: I saw an Oprah Winfrey Christmas Special and she showed how these kids my own age (at the time, 11) were taking care of their younger siblings because both of their parents had died of AIDS. I just could not fathom that. It was not acceptable to me. I had no exposure to that kind of issue before, that extreme poverty, and extreme suffering. On some level, I understood human suffering on a greater level because of my own suffering. Their pain resonated with me, and their vulnerability.
TV: Can you explain the goals of Kids Caring 4 Kids, and how it helps children in North America and in Africa?
KC: The mission of Kids Caring 4 Kids is to raise money and awareness for highly vulnerable children in Africa while also working to inspire kids in the United State to care for those in need. Through that model, we have two different missions. One is to directly help children in Africa, and another is to inspire a generation of givers.
I had the opportunity to take a trip to Africa in the summer of 2010 and we visited four projects that we’ve be able to support in Zambia and South Africa. I saw a great hope in what we’ve been able to do—feed kids meals, provide them with clean water, and provide teachers and kids with classrooms—a variety of different things that are directly affecting their lives.
TV: Has Kids Caring 4 Kids expanded or changed since you started it in 2004?
KC: Absolutely. Kids Caring 4 Kids began somewhat by accident. It started with an effort after that Oprah show, and finding World Vision, which is a world-relief organization that runs an orphan sponsorship program. I found a little girl who was eight years old and living without parents; I decided that I needed to help her. That night, I decided I was going to financially sponsor or adopt that little girl with $360 of my own money, and through that process I learned that I wanted to do more. I got a letter back from her; she was doing really well—in school for the first time. I was so empowered by those results. I wanted to do more. While I was undergoing two liver transplants that summer, I asked people to donate to a larger project that we were supporting with World Vision—an entire community in Zambia. I set up a fundraising page with their help, raised about $15,000 that summer and then decided to officially organize Kids Caring 4 Kids. I would have more flexibility in what I wanted to do. It was such a small action, me wanting to sponsor one child, which snowballed into what Kids Caring 4 Kids is today. Until about 2007, it was very much a basement organization. Today, it is much more intentional and much larger.
TV: What do you need to do daily in order to keep the program running smoothly?
KC: I wouldn’t say necessarily that Kids Caring 4 Kids is an everyday activity. I tend to work in spurts. Last fall, the first semester of my freshman year of college, I took a hiatus from Kids Caring 4 Kids to get my life together. It was a big transition. [Going to college] is a big transition without medical issues; it’s an even bigger transition with medical issues. I wanted to take some time to think about what I want Kids Caring 4 Kids to become, and where am I going to go with it. My parents were a huge support in high school and middle school but it’s not their project—
it’s mine—and that comes with responsibility and ownership. I really want to get more young people involved in the leadership of Kids Caring 4 Kids. My goal this past semester was to develop more of a leadership team of students my age and I’m happy to say we were successful.
TV: You have received numerous honors and awards for your work, including audiences with Oprah Winfrey and former President Bill Clinton. How has media played a role in your organization? And what was it like to meet such famous people?
KC: Media plays an important role in any venture because you can’t do anything if no one knows about it. I’m very thankful for all of the media opportunities we’ve been able to have. It is nice to be recognized for this work because it shows other people that they can do the same, that it doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference. I want kids to know that they can help, that they can be a part of this organization. That’s really what this effort is about.
It’s fun to meet people like President Clinton and Oprah; they have been such inspirations in my life. It was a very memorable experience, probably the most surreal day of my life, but what I’ve learned about famous people is that they are really just like us. I think that sometimes, people forget that.
TV: You are an aspiring journalist. What are you currently doing to pursue your goals?
KC: I did an internship with HARPO, particularly with Oprah Radio last summer and that was an amazing experience. It was my first professional experience in journalism. I started by attending this fantastic program called Medill Northwestern Journalism Institute, a program that’s run for rising high school seniors. It’s a five-week intensive journalism program, and you meet incredible people. I have recently been writing for Maria Shriver’s blog. I had the opportunity to go to a Google conference where I met Arianna Huffington, and she invited me to write for Huffington Post. I am also working with MTV Voices, which is a new international online platform looking for global correspondents. In addition, this year I worked for my campus newspaper and I have a one-hour campus talk show on our campus radio station. This summer I am interning at FOX Chicago and working on other journalism projects.
TV: Do you have any advice to our readers interested in starting their own business or beginning a career in broadcast journalism?
KC: Don’t take no for an answer. When doors close, I work endlessly to open them. I have never found a door that has been permanently closed. If you really want something, you need to fight for it. Also, make—I heard this at a leadership conference once, and I love it—BHAGs: Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. I think that acknowledging and writing down your goals is important because if you don’t put them out there, it is less likely that you are going to accomplish them.
TV: What do you believe have been your greatest accomplishments? What have been your biggest battles?
KC: My biggest battle has been my chronic illness; it hasn’t been the easiest road for me. There is always a lot of uncertainty in my life. However, I believe that if I start to worry about the future and what it could possibly mean, I lose a lot of my life and because of that, I work to act fearlessly in all that I do.
My greatest accomplishment and the thing I am most proud of are the changes I have been able to make in kids’ lives both in America and in Africa. Kids Caring 4 Kids has been able to inspire and garner the direct involvement of more than 7,000 kids in the United States and raise nearly $1 million for kids in Africa.
TV: What are your goals and aspirations for the next five years? What do you hope to accomplish?
KC: I have so many. I make a list every year of things I dream of accomplishing or doing or experiencing in my life. I would like to write a book. I would like to finish raising $1 million dollars—we are close but we haven’t quite gotten there yet. I want to intern at the Today Show, and I want to work on a campaign to fight AIDS with Bono [of U2].
For more information on Kids Caring 4 Kids, see: www.kidscaring4kids.org
Photo by Connor Ciesemier
1 Responses »
Leave a Response