Watching TV with her parents one night in December 2003, Kendall Ciesemier’s life changed — she just didn’t know it yet.
The 11-year-old living in Wheaton, Illinois, saw an Oprah Winfrey special about kids in South Africa. The children on the show were Kendall’s age. But instead of going to fifth grade like she did, they were caring for their younger siblings because their parents had died from AIDS.
“I was really angry about it,” says Kendall, now 21. “If these kids had been born here, we wouldn’t just let them live without parents.” For the first time in her young life, she saw what extreme poverty looks like — no running water, no electricity, mud-hut dwellings — and it was “unfathomable.”
That night, she searched online for information about AIDS orphans in Africa. Topping the results was World Vision’s child sponsorship program, and a few clicks later, Kendall found Benite, an 8-year-old girl in Mauritania.
“I reached into my dresser drawer and grabbed $360 of my saved-up birthday money,” says Kendall. Her parents, Mike and Ellery, helped her understand that sending a wad of cash in the mail wasn’t the best idea, and they figured out how to get Kendall’s money — at the time, enough to sponsor Benite for a year — to World Vision.
“Before I saw the Oprah show, I felt like I was supposed to be doing something that God wanted me to do, but I was missing it,” Kendall recalls. “I saw that show and knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing.”
Though she’d never experienced poverty, Kendall was well-acquainted with struggle. Born with a chronic liver disease, she had two liver transplants in the summer of 2004. While her illness didn’t interfere substantially in her everyday life — other than missing school for doctor’s appointments and therapy — it made her feel different from her peers, and she developed an acute empathy for others who were going through any kind of challenge.
Just before the first surgery, Kendall received her first letter from Benite, who wrote about going to school for the first time and learning to read, write, and add — all made possible by Kendall’s sponsorship. “I had really made a difference, and it was so easy,” says Kendall. “I knew I could get so many more people to do the same.”
She contacted World Vision to find a larger project to support and chose the village of Musele, Zambia, one of the areas most highly affected by the AIDS epidemic at the time. World Vision’s work in Musele had an annual operating budget of $60,000, which became Kendall’s new goal.
In lieu of the gifts she usually received before surgery, she asked friends and family to donate toward her goal. “I was blogging about my health and would also talk about what I was doing with World Vision, and people really took to it,” says Kendall. “Kids started to do fundraisers across the country.”
By the end of the summer, she’d raised $20,000. “It was lemonade stands and bake sales and penny wars, and it was really cool,” says Kendall. She decided to start her own nonprofit, and Kids Caring 4 Kids officially launched in January 2005. She had no idea that 10 years later, her dream that started with one girl in Mauritania would touch thousands of lives.
Kids Caring 4 Kids empowers young people in the U.S. to expand their worldview by giving to children in need in sub-Saharan Africa. “We show kids [in the U.S.] that they’re powerful and they’re old enough to make a difference — or young enough to make a difference.”
It started slow: Kendall was in and out of the hospital for several years in middle school, so she and her parents dedicated whatever time was left outside school obligations to running the organization.
To be used during the worst time of my life in such a powerful way to help other people — I think that’s amazing.—Kendall Ciesemier
Kendall began to redefine herself. “I didn’t have to be Kendall the sick girl. I could be Kendall the girl who was trying to help other people,” she says. “To be used during the worst time of my life in such a powerful way to help other people — I think that’s amazing, which is why my favorite Bible verse is ‘power made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).’”
By 2007, Kids Caring 4 Kids had doubled its original $60,000 goal and set a new $1 million goal. A big boost came two weeks into Kendall’s freshman year of high school: Former President Bill Clinton surprised her at a school assembly and whisked her to Chicago to appear with him on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Donations to Kids Caring 4 Kids poured in, and young people across the country wanted to get involved.
Kids Caring 4 Kids hasn’t slowed down. To date, more than 10,000 U.S. children and teenagers have raised almost $1 million to support projects with partner organizations like World Bicycle Relief, Lifesong for Orphans, and World Vision. The fruit of their most recent efforts is a high school in Kitwe, Zambia, which opened in September 2014 with a class of nearly 100 orphaned teenagers.
Though a busy college student — she’ll graduate from Georgetown University next spring — with continued health problems, Kendall runs the day-to-day operations of Kids Caring 4 Kids, including speaking engagements and other opportunities. “Kids Caring 4 Kids is the biggest testament in my life that God can use anyone to do great things,” says Kendall.
Post-college, she sees the challenge in balancing the organization with pursuing new passions, like her dream job of hosting a documentary series to tell the stories of the world’s most vulnerable people.
“Saying yes to God’s call is the best choice you can ever make, even if he’s going to ask you to do hard things — like have two liver transplants,” says Kendall. “I want to continue saying yes to what I feel like I’m being called to do, whether it’s something small during the day, or continuing Kids Caring 4 Kids.”