Kendall Ciesemier: the American with a Heart for Africans
Kendall’s efforts in helping and caring for other children have been widely recognized to such a point that she has received multiple awards for her philanthropic work, most notably the Prudential Spirit of Community Award. She was also named as one of the 20 Amazing Young Women of Glamour magazine, and won the Woman of the Year Reader’s Choice Award.
She has also made an appearance at the Oprah Winfrey Show, along with former United States President Bill Clinton, who was greatly impressed with the passion and dedication that Kendall is putting into her charitable activities.
Aside from being a philanthropist, Kendall is also a talented journalist. As early as nineteen years old, Kendall already has professional experience in working in the journalism industry. She was a Women in the World Correspondent for popular publications such as The Daily Beast and Newsweek, and has been a field correspondent for Gimmemo Productions.
Kendall believes in the power of media because it helps in spreading the word concerning any philanthropic activities, as she experienced herself. She said:
“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.”
Kendall’s passion for helping other youths greatly stems from her experiences in life that helped her in understanding what these children are going through. She was born with a rare liver disease and had to undergo two liver transplants just to survive.
A Fearless American Teen
Realizing early on that life is short, Kendall has since then developed the attitude of living life the best way that she can—and saw that the best way she can live life is to help others live. Kendall’s experience in dealing with a life threatening disease has also helped her to empathize with other children and understand what they are going through. She says in an interview:
“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!”
Fearless. This is probably the trait that would best describe Kendall in all of the things that she had to go through. Many of us, when faced with such seemingly insurmountable obstacles in life, would sulk down in defeat and quit the race—but not Kendall. Her amazing “bounce back” attitude has enabled her to conquer her struggles in life, and emerge victorious.
Up to now, Kendall remains beautiful, strong, and passionate about helping others—a true symbol of hope and courage for the next generation. When Kendall was asked regarding her biggest battles, she said:
“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.”
Aside from her extraordinary courage and fearlessness, Kendall is also a very optimistic person. For someone her age, it is quite spectacular to develop an attitude of seeing the good even in the worst situations. This is how Kendall turned something devastating, such as having a chronic illness, into something that’s inspiring. She often says, “I like to turn my own pain into a way to help others.”
This is the reason why when Kendall saw the story of the young orphans in Africa, she did not passively watch—she decided to get involved by doing something that will change their lives. She said:
“I was just in awe of how they could handle that at such a young age—both dealing with grieving the loss of their parents and being responsible for their own lives... Instead of crying, I got online and searched for a way to help them.”
Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals
Finally, the attitude that helped Kendall to succeed in her philanthropic work is an attitude of never giving up. Over the years, Kendall has developed the mindset of not taking “no” for an answer. A true Christian by heart, Kendall understands that if you are willing to believe in whatever you desire, it will give you the ability to achieve them. She openly discussed this during an interview made with her, saying:
“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.”
Kendall’s Birth in Wheaton
Kendall was born in 1993 in the small city of Wheaton, Illinois to two Christian parents. She was born with biliary atresia, a rare liver defect where the bile duct—which is supposed to be present between the liver and the small intestine—is either blocked or is absent. In Kendall’s case, her bile duct was blocked. Since the duct carries bile, an important fluid that aids in the digestion of fats and other food components, having it blocked meant that Kendall had to grow up suffering from problems of improper digestion and other stomach issues.
Knowing what was ahead for their daughter, Kendall’s parents prayed for her earnestly that they would find a way to help their child get out of that misery. When the answer did not come immediately, Kendall’s parents did not lose heart.
While Kendall was growing up, her parents showered her with all the love and care that they could give in order to make life easier for her. Kendall recalled how her father sacrificed just to make Kendall comfortable.
In spite of her disease, Kendall’s early childhood was not marked by indifference and discrimination. She still played with other kids and had fun with them, albeit not as much because of her condition. However, due to frequent doctor appointments, her body became so weak that she could not even play monkey bars.
And while she was suffering inside, Kendall learned to develop a habit of maintaining a healthy exterior—something that her parents instilled in her as she was growing up.
Kendall and her parents knew that if she was going to survive, she would eventually need to have a liver transplant. Fortunately enough, her parents had the resources needed in order to help their daughter, and during her sixth grade, Kendall—only eleven at that time—had two liver transplants. She got the first half of her liver from her father, and the other from a donor. She had to stay in the hospital for the entire summer due to these operations. Eventually, the operations were successful, and Kendall was assured of a bright future.
Kendall Inspired by the Oprah Winfrey Show
That same year, prior to her operation, as she was watching the Oprah Winfrey Show in the family living room, Kendall saw a segment about young orphans in Africa whose parents of HIV and AIDS.
As she sat there, looking intently at the videos of the children, a realization dawned on her. In an interview made with Kendall many years later, she described what transpired during that time:
“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. 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.”
Growing up in a well–to–do family, Kendall could not fathom how those children would survive without the help of other people. Kendall knew she had to do something about the situation, but did not know how to start. And so, Kendall went online to look for organizations that accept donations or in search of sponsors for the children in Africa.
The American Teen from Wheaton Joins World Vision
Kendall found her opportunity in World Vision, a relief organization that ran an orphan sponsorship program. Through careful research, Kendall saw a little girl that she decided to support, and donated what money she had to help the girl. She related this story in an interview made with her:
“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.”
The little girl that she supported, Benite, who reported that she was attending school for the first time, really touched Kendall. She said, “That was so powerful. My $360, a yearlong child sponsorship, changed her life.” That day, Kendall’s resolve to help the kids in Africa was strengthened (after doing more research, Kendall soon realized that helping one person was not enough.
Founding Kids Caring 4 Kids and Joining Philanthropic Projects
Empowered by the fact that her actions made a significant change in the life of one person, Kendall became more determined to expand her reach. Her next goal was to help an entire village in Zambia, but since it would cost far more (around sixty thousand dollars a year to be exact), Kendall knew that she was going to need help. During her stay in the hospital for her liver transplants, Kendall encouraged her friends and loved ones that instead of buying her get–well gifts, they donate that amount to the village that she supports through World Vision.
Right after her second transplant, Kendall founded Kids Caring 4 Kids, her own non-profit organization that aimed to help children in Africa. With support from Kendall’s local church, Kids Caring 4 Kids successfully supported a community center in Kenya so that the children there can visit the center for education and food. Within a span of three years, Kids Caring 4 Kids became very successful that it already raised more than a hundred thousand dollars.
In the next few years, Kids Caring 4 Kids worked together with organizations like World Vision to help families and children in African communities. From its founding, Kids Caring 4 Kids has grown to such a size that it now supports eight projects in four countries in Africa, making the lives of around seven thousand Africans better through raising over a million dollars by the support of over seven thousand children in the United States.
The money raised by Kids Caring 4 Kids have been used for various projects, such as constructing community centers, distributing bicycles for children, providing facilities for schools (e.g. indoor plumbing), drilling underground water sources, supporting students, and conducting feeding programs for widows and AIDS patients. Kendall sees her work as her greatest accomplishment, knowing that helping lives is a bigger accomplishment compared to whatever one achieves in life. In an interview made with her, she said:
“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. I felt that, no matter what we do, it'll be interesting for kids to come here annually for their check up, but really it's for the kids and their family who live here, to give them moments of peace and calm”
Aside from her work in Kids Caring 4 Kids, Kendall has also actively participated in the development of the new Hospital of Chicago, by Ann and Robert Lurie. She was significant in bringing the ‘kid perspective’ in the school, and sat on the boards of planning and designing.
Her most important contribution to the hospital was the inspiration for the Crown Sky Garden (a state of the art winter garden). She is also currently part of the Kids Advisory Board, and gave consultations to doctors, nurses and child specialists for the betterment of child patient care.
Kendall Heads Wheaton North High School’s Falcon Flyer
In 2007, Kendall graduated from middle school and enrolled at Wheaton North High School for her high school studies. She was a very bright and intelligent student, and was active in the affairs of the school. She exhibited leadership skills through becoming the president of the student council, and also expressed her interests in journalism by being the editor-in-chief of the Falcon Flyer, the school paper. Kendall’s teachers were so impressed with both her enthusiasm and intellect, and often used her as an example of what it means to be a top student.
Kendall Meets Oprah Winfrey and President Bill Clinton
When Kendall was in her second year at Wheaton North High School, she got the shock of her life when former President Bill Clinton appeared at a school assembly and called her to the stage. Once she came up, former President Clinton announced that he was going to bring Kendall to the Oprah Winfrey Show, something that brought the assembly into a loud applause.
When she arrived at the studio, Kendall was so thrilled to meet Oprah, the woman that she truly admired, so much so that she wanted to cry. During the show, former President Clinton told Kendall that one of his friends donated around half a million dollars to Kids Caring 4 Kids, which almost brought Kendall to her knees in gratitude. In an interview made with her afterwards, Kendall said of the experience:
“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.”
The Amazing Teen Leaves Wheaton to Go to College
Kendall graduated from Wheaton North High School in 2011 with a GPA of 3.94/4.0, making her the third out of the 495 students in the school. She also earned a scholarship from Discover Financial, which she used when she applied in Georgetown University to study Arts, Sociology, Journalism and Theology. She is currently in her sophomore year in the university, and is often praised by her professors for being such a dedicated and bright student.
Daily Herald Covers Kendall's Work in Kids Caring 4 Kids
Daily Herald journalist, Robert Sanchez, campaigned for the young teen to be voted for Glamour Magazine's Women of the Year: Readers' Choice Award. The article read: "Kendall Ciesemier supporters have until Aug. 30 to vote for her in Glamour Magazine's Women of the Year: Readers' Choice Award. She was nominated for the honor by Jennifer Fortney, a Kids Caring 4 Kids volunteer. If Kendall wins, she will travel to New York City to be honored along with celebrity winners competing in a separate category. (Source: Kidscaring4kids.org)"
Kendall’s Achievements as Founder of Kids Caring 4 Kids
So, in 2011, she was included in the list of the 20 Most Amazing Young Women by the popular Glamour Magazine. Kendall was also took home the Woman of the Year Reader’s Choice Award, which truly proves how much of an inspiration and influence she has been through her organization.
Kendall has received plenty of other honors and awards for her work. She was named a Gloria Barron Hero, and most recently, a Google Zeitgeist Young Mind. She was also included in the Youth Service America’s list of the Top 20 Most Powerful and Influential Young People.
Currently, Kendall juggles her time between being a college student in Georgetown University and a philanthropist with Kids Caring 4 Kids. And while she is content with all the things that the organization has already achieved, she is not yet satisfied; knowing that there is still so much potential to help others. She stated:
“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.”
Kendall serves as an inspiration to many of us who want to do something significant in this world but don’t know where to begin. She shows us that helping others does not require having a lot of money or influence—they all come later as you go through your journey. What is most important is that you have a heart of serving, and that will take you a long way. She says:
“You don't have to start a charity to make a difference in people's lives, and you don't have to raise thousands of dollars. It isn't that hard to change someone's life. All you have to do is have a passion for it. It's something anyone can do.”
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Kids Caring 4 Kids
- World Vision
- Lifesong for Orphans
- We Are Family Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 2007: Received the Prudential Spirit of Community Award
- 2007: Named as the Chicagoan of the Year
- 2009: Named as a Build-A-Bear Workshop Huggable Hero
- 2010: Granted a Scholarship by Discover Financial
- 2011: Received the Woman of the Year Reader’s Choice Award from Glamour Magazine
- 2011: Included in the 20 Amazing Young Women by Glamour Magazine
- 2011: Included in the list of Google Zeitgeist Young Minds
- 2012: Named as a Global Teen Leader by We Are Family Foundation
- 2012: Included in the Top 25 Most Powerful and Influential Young People by Youth Service America
- Won the Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes