The images on the television screen shook my 5th grade reality. As I sat watching an Oprah Winfrey Show highlighting the plight of African AIDS orphans, I began to imagine myself, 11-year-old Kendall Ciesemier, alone, living in a mud hut, caring for my younger siblings and grieving the death of my parents. Having experienced struggle in my own life, their pain resonated with me and I was in awe of what appeared to be their unwavering hope.
That night, I knew I had seen the opportunity I was waiting for—my chance to give my life more purpose than the chronic liver disease I had grown up fighting against.
Online after the show, I found World Visions’s orphan sponsorship program and I met Benite, an 8-year-old girl from Mauritania who needed my help. Months after sponsoring Benite with $360 of my own money, I received a letter from her about starting school for the first time. Witnessing the newfound hope in her life led me to believe that with a little help, I could change many more lives.
That summer, as I underwent two liver transplants, I asked that in lieu of gifts, friends and family donate money to help more children like Benite. With their generosity I sponsored the village of Musele, Zambia. By the end of the summer, I had raised over $15,000 as kids from across the country, hearing of my effort, started their own fundraisers. As a result of this snowball effect, I decided to officially organize my effort, calling it “Kids Caring 4 Kids.” In January of 2005, Kids Caring 4 Kids (KC4K) officially became a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
The mission of KC4K is twofold: first, to raise awareness and money for highly vulnerable children in Africa; and second, to inspire kids in America to care for those in need.
To that end, I have spent the last six years working to educate and motivate American youth. I have spoken to schools, youth groups and service organizations, challenging them to get involved in order to make a difference in another child’s life. Kids across the country have answered the challenge, holding KC4K fundraisers as diverse as penny wars, basketball tournaments and karaoke contests to raise funds to support the effort.
Since then KC4K has grown to support eight different projects in Africa. We have built a dormitory, two orphan centers, and provided 400 specially built bikes, school supplies, medical care, indoor plumbing, healthy meals and boreholes. We have helped nearly 7,000 people in Africa by inspiring over 7,000 American kids to raise nearly one million dollars. And we have even attracted the attention of Oprah and President Clinton.
While I’m only eighteen, I feel like I have lived half of a lifetime. Through my personal medical struggles and my journey with KC4K, I have learned many important lessons. Here are some of them:
Don’t take “NO” for an answer.
I’ve been told that I do this to a fault. Well then, it’s a fault I’m proud of. When doors close, work endlessly to open them. I’ve never met a door that was permanently closed. Forget pride, forget failing. If you really want something, fight for a “yes” because once you get one, it doesn’t matter how many “no’s” preceded it.
Listen to that whisper within you.
If I’m being completely transparent, I would tell you that in my life, my relationship with God has made the biggest difference. In starting Kids Caring 4 Kids, I was merely listening to that little whisper within and reacting and responding to what I felt I was called to do. Without this guidance, nothing in my life would be what it is today.
Make “BHAGs”- Big Hairy Audacious Goals.
I heard this once at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit and it really stuck with me, partly because I had already witnessed the effects that making BHAGs had on my life; and partly because, come on, who wouldn’t remember an acronym like that? What is particularly interesting about this is that when I look back at my 5th grade list of goals, I’ve actually accomplished quite a number of them, even though at that time, they were pretty BHAGy. Acknowledging your goals and writing them down is important. If you don’t put them out there, it is less likely that you will accomplish them.
When I take the time to reflect, I realize the true significance that KC4K has had in my life. Never could I imagine that my one heart action would result in what KC4K is today.
I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to “cash-in” my sympathy currency—the result of having a chronic liver disease—for real change. My deep dark childhood secret—the scars that stretched the lengths of my abnormally round belly—could be exchanged for something much greater. I did not have to live with the label of “Kendall the sick girl” but instead a new definition—“Kendall the girl who wants to help others”.
I am incredibly grateful for Kids Caring 4 Kids as it has given me a tremendous purpose to live, a purpose beyond myself.