Illinois Teen's Charity Work Draws National Attention
By ROBERT SANCHEZ
(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald
(Arlington Heights) Daily Herald
TEEN UNDERGOES TWO LIVER TRANSPLANT IN TWO MONTHS THROUGHOUT THE ORDEAL CONTINUES HER CHARITY WORK.
WHEATON, Ill. (AP) — Kendall Ciesemier was 11 when an idea to donate $360 to sponsor one child in Africa blossomed into a charity that would raise money for thousands of kids affected by AIDS.
In that time, she met a former president, appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and raised more than $830,000 through her Kids Caring 4 Kids organization. But a few years later, the motivation that called her to action was starting to wane.
"It's hard to come so far from the moment I said I wanted to help these kids," said the Wheaton resident, now 17.
Seeing pictures and reading stories about the conditions in Africa weren't cutting it. She had to experience herself what was going on there.
Kendall got that opportunity in June when she and her family visited Zambia and South Africa. The Wheaton North High School senior returned from the trip knowing that she must continue what she started.
"Inspiration slapped me in the face and said, 'You're not done with Africa, Kendall. You have so much more to do,'" she said.
Some recent national attention might help her achieve her goal to raise $1 million and convince 30 high schools each to donate $5,000 to Kids Caring 4 Kids.
Glamour Magazine has named Kendall a finalist in its "Women of the Year" contest.
"I hope this nomination will bring attention to the extreme poverty and disease that plagues an entire continent," she said.
Kendall's life changed in December 2003 with an Oprah Winfrey special about children in Africa who had lost their parents to AIDS.
Watching the program with her own parents, Kendall, 11 at the time, pondered what those kids were going through. "I just couldn't imagine it."
So she went on the computer and learned about World Vision's orphan sponsorship program. She took all of her birthday and Christmas money out of her dresser and stuffed $360 into an envelope.
The gesture came as no surprise to Kendall's mother. Ellery Ciesemier said her daughter, who was born with pediatric liver disease, always supported the underdog.
"Growing up, she always was asking me to pay fees for classmates to play basketball or to go on a field trip," Ellery said. "She was always finding the new student and sitting by them at lunch."
Kendall said her desire to help others stems from her own medical issues.
"I just have always wanted to reach out to those who are struggling," she said. "So I think I've always found it easy to relate to kids that were going through a hard time."
The surprise for her mother was that Kendall wanted to take on the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa.
Ellery Ciesemier saw the same show as her daughter but responded as many of us would. She felt sad, and then turned off the television.
"Adults tend to get so overwhelmed with a problem as a whole that they think they can't do anything," Ellery said. "So they do nothing. I think kids come at things with a completely different perspective."
For Kendall, getting letters from the orphan she sponsored only fueled her desire to do more. But first, she would have her own adversity to overcome.
In the summer of 2004, Kendall would need two liver transplants in three months.
Before the first surgery, in lieu of gifts, she asked for donations to support an entire village in Africa. With the help of World Vision, she set up a project to raise $60,000.
"That summer, every time people wanted to do something nice for me, they would donate money to the kids in Africa," she said. "I felt good about it, and I wasn't getting a million teddy bears."
Initially, friends and family members responded. Then strangers who had heard of Kendall's request through word-of-mouth and the Internet began sending her money.
"I think it was just a lot of people, at that time, getting behind a sick kid," she said.
By the time of the second transplant that August, Kendall had raised about $15,000. It was the silver lining in an otherwise difficult time for the Ciesemier family.
"To take something that was so awful and turn it into something that's so great," Kendall said, "I think it was really a gift for me. I could focus my energy on something positive and feel like my struggle was going to mean something to someone else."
By the end of summer, Kendall and her parents saw what had happened and decided to create a charity. Kids Caring 4 Kids was granted not-for-profit status in January 2005.
One uncle designed the website and another came up with the logo.
"It was such a basement charity - just a really small effort," Kendall recalled. "In many ways, it's still like that."
Kendall started speaking at schools. There were fundraisers. And then she started getting publicity.
She admits that all the media attention has been a challenge.
"I don't do it for the attention," she said. "The publicity, in my view, is good for the organization because it makes people aware of what we're doing. That's the only reason I would ever want to be in an article."
She never expected to find herself on one of the largest media stages of all.
In August 2007, Kendall attended a morning assembly at Wheaton North. She didn't know the assembly featuring former President Bill Clinton was in her honor.
The day's second shock came when Clinton whisked her off to tape an episode of Oprah Winfrey's show spotlighting the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa.
During the program, Kendall talked about her charity and announced her ultimate goal was to raise $1 million for the orphans.
It was a bold statement. Up to that point, Kids Caring 4 Kids had raised $100,000.
But then Clinton surprised Kendall by announcing that an anonymous donor had given $500,000 to her charity.
Kids Caring 4 Kids has since raised more than $830,000 for the various projects it's supporting. And last year, the charity started sending out free "I care 2" kits to kids who want to get involved. Each kit includes a letter from Kendall, an informational DVD, a T-shirt and a step-by-step guide to giving.
Because of her medical issues, Kendall never was able to travel to Africa to see the result of her efforts. That all changed in June.
Kendall often dreamed of meeting the African children she's working to help.
In June, the Ciesemiers visited a school in Zambia. Thanks to money raised by Kids Caring 4 Kids, the school was able to build new showers, bathrooms and a sick bay for its 200 students.
The children live in mud huts and face various dangers, including malaria, every day.
Still, Kendall said, they literally greeted her with open arms.
"It's the greatest feeling to have a million kids just try to hug you," she said. "They were so happy."
She also visited an orphan care center that Kids Caring 4 Kids helped build in South Africa. Children go to the center for support, including food, homework assistance and medical care.
The first thing that struck Kendall was the massive size of the local cemetery because of the AIDS epidemic. "They've lost an entire generation of people," she said. "They've lost everyone's parents."
Despite the tremendous need, she notes progress. "You see what is changing; there is a difference being made."
And of course, there are the children. Kendall said she became friends with every child she met. "They love love," she said.
Meeting those children reinvigorated Kendall. She's rededicated herself to continue what she started when she stuffed $360 into an envelope years ago.
"I know for sure that I will always be involved in Africa, whether it be either Kids Caring 4 Kids or something else," she said. "I know I will always be in Africa and working for Africa, because that's really where my heart is."