At 11-years-old, while most of us were envisioning ourselves in training bras, Kylie Kuhns was envisioning a life-changing organization. After losing her older sister Kelsey to a 7-year battle with leukemia, Kylie fought to ensure that the legacy of her strong and compassionate sister lived on. Kelsey's Dream brings light, companionship and support to children undergoing cancer treatments. Within Kelsey's Dream, Kylie has cultivated several initiatives that have invigorated hospitals across the country. Now a sophomore in college, this girl isn't slowing down, showing cancer that the Kuhns girls are never going to stop fighting.
Her Campus: What was the hardest part of creating Kelsey’s Dream?
Kylie Kuhns: I was only 11-years-old when I set out to create Kelsey’s Dream. I didn’t know how to coordinate volunteers, encourage outside support, gain nonprofit status, trademark names or do any of the administrative tasks required to run something like this. What I did know was my sister Kelsey, and that I wanted more than anything to help other children and families who were in similar situations. Kelsey was a light throughout her entire life. Despite my age, my lack of knowledge and experience, and the time-consuming world that I was entering into, I knew that no matter what struggles we had to face, they were all worth it to bring that joy to other families. As I got older and we gained more experience with Kelsey’s Dream, the basic sides became natural to us. Our focus shifted to growth. We wanted to help as many families as possible and to do that we needed more volunteers and more exposure. We have a strong support system in our community, but pushing past the people who knew Kelsey and our mission was something we had to really work to figure out. We continue to learn on the job and find new solutions followed by even more challenges. Through everything that we face we keep fighting, stay positive and never give up.
HC: What is the one thing you want to accomplish with Kelsey’s Dream?
KK: Kelsey’s Dream has so many different programs that it seems impossible to pick one goal. I want to see a Hopper the Cancer Crusher in the hands of every child diagnosed with cancer. I want to see Camp Dost, a cancer camp for children and one family member, to continue to grow and succeed after the incredible memories it provided for Kelsey and me. I want to see the Snack Pack program grow in a way that allows children free snacks whenever they have to go through draining and discouraging treatments. I want to see the Angel Tree program continue to bring gifts and joy to families in need during the holiday season. I want to see the annual Kelsey’s Fall Festival continue to thrive as a hub of community engagement and involvement. I want Kelsey’s Dream to continue encouraging children through their battle and support families after a life-altering diagnosis. Kelsey is my inspiration and her dreams and goals live through this organization and our incredible volunteers. I want to accomplish everything she believed in.
HC: Can you tell us a little bit about the Hopper the Cancer Crusher? What does it do?
KK: Hopper the Cancer Crusher is a plush frog that we developed based on one of Kelsey's drawings. Hopper is a play therapy toy, meaning it is both encouraging through the ability for a child to play and snuggle with it, but also includes educational features. Hopper wears medical pajamas, a bandana and even has a mediport similar to the one patients will have during treatment. Hopper is special because hospital staff is able to explain some of the changes the child will go through during treatment, point out the mediport on Hopper, and bring that education to the child in the most positive way possible. Hospitals can be filled with a lot of confusion and fear for children and Hopper allows that little bit of joy to be added for them. Hopper is also unique from other stuffed animals because it really takes the journey with the child. The pajamas, bandana and mediport are designed to make the child feel less alone. Hopper is a friend who takes the journey with them and goes through the same changes that the child may. Through donations and sponsorships, over 8,000 Hoppers have been sent to hospitals in 45 states free of charge. We receive photos and notes of thanks from families all the time to confirm what a blessing and encouragement Hopper truly is to these children and their families.
HC: Who in your life most inspires you?
KK: My entire life, my sister Kelsey inspired me. She is the reason I am the person that I am today. Seeing what she went through with the hospital visits, treatment, medicine and pain all while keeping a smile on her face and a positive attitude helped me have a different outlook on life. Some days were tougher than others but her famous saying that got her through it was “failure is not an option.” Whenever I come across an obstacle in my life I repeat those same words to myself. I always remember that if Kelsey could get through her toughest days of going through cancer with nothing but positive energy coming out of her, I can get through life’s small tests. She is my inspiration to get the most out of life and to take every opportunity and run with it.
HC: How would you describe yourself in 5 words?
KK: Driven, loyal, athletic, familial, dedicated. From starting Kelsey's Dream, graduating high school with honors and achievements, attending my dream university and engaging in both my studies and extracurricular activities on campus, I have always reached for more in the situations I was put in. I really try to push myself to find ways to improve and become even more involved. That drive really takes something deep inside you to keep going and keep finding that motivation. As I keep looking for new ways to grow myself, I know it is important to remain loyal to where I have been. To truly make a difference, you have to stick with something for the long-haul. Kelsey's Dream has changed lives not because of who I am, but because I just kept working, volunteers joined me and we all stayed true to the cause and the dream that we felt loyal to. Also, family is what brings meaning to what I do and who I am. Kelsey and I had a bond that I really can't describe. Even during her battle, our relationship continued to grow. We were so young, but there was still such a clear moment of joy and encouragement when I was first allowed to visit her in the hospital. My mother could see that special love between us and she has always helped me through life. Together we work on Kelsey's Dream and use the love that Kelsey had for people around her to keep inspiring and keep encouraging other children with cancer. None of this would have been possible without Kelsey and her heart. None of it would be possible without my mom and her bravery to charge forward with me to create Kelsey's Dream.
HC: What advice do you have for collegiettes with a goal or dream?
KK: Just go for it. Having a dream, original idea or true motivation to do something is the most valuable tool a person can ever have. Starting out on something new can leave a person feeling filled with doubt and fear. None of that matters if your heart is prepared to push forward and give your dream the time and energy that it needs. If you just dive into something, you have already done the hardest part. As your dream grows and changes, you will start to see where you can tweak and tune, but until you start, you will never know where those areas for growth are. If you don't try, you are guaranteed to never reach that goal. Giving it a shot is the only way you can secure the possibility of success.
HC: Where do you see Kelsey’s Dream going from here?
KK: When I graduated from high school, we had our first major shift in my role at Kelsey’s Dream. I was no longer living in the community that had become so familiar with Kelsey’s Dream. I was more restricted in my communication. Even being away at Penn State University, I maintained a close and personal touch with Kelsey’s Dream and was able to see the organization gain new exposure and be welcomed by a new community. As I continue to grow up, I know even more of these changes will come. My movement throughout the world will only gain new possibilities for Kelsey’s Dream. Each person that I come in contact with, each Hopper that finds a home, each blanket that is given to a camper at Camp Dost, each intern we recruit from local colleges, each Kelsey’s Fall Festival we host opens new doors. Kelsey’s Dream already has a hand in nearly every state in the country. I cannot wait to see Hopper in every state, every hospital and every heart. Kelsey’s Dream will always be working to grow nationally. Every time Kelsey’s name is spoken, a new ear might be inspired to begin helping children who have been diagnosed with cancer. Kelsey never saw any limits and we don’t either.